Mom, if only you could have known the person I became after China

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My mother could never have imagined I would one day be married to a Chinese citizen and living in China.

What if my mother could have seen me in China? What if she could have met my Chinese husband John?

The question taunted me a few months back when I encountered this post by Susan Blumberg-Kason (my friend and author of Good Chinese Wife), recounting one time when her mother and father flew to Hong Kong to spend time with her. This was a regular thing for Susan’s parents, who loved to travel and longed to see their daughter more often than her occasional jaunts back to her hometown of Chicago. My heart ached as I scrolled through photos of her mom and dad smiling at the camera, knowing I could never have posted pics of my parents together in China.

After all, my mother had passed away long before I first boarded that Air China flight in 1999 headed straight for Beijing.

A pained expression flashed across my face as I recalled 1994, the same year my mother lost her battle with a late-stage skin cancer that had aggressively metastasized all over her body.

Weeks before she passed away, she gifted me with an Audubon guide to the Eastern birds of North America – a reflection of my career aspirations at the time, the hope that I would one day become an ornithologist. I spent huge chunks of my summers chasing after warblers, swifts and ospreys with a pair of binoculars, and dreamed that I might earn a PhD one day from Cornell, which housed America’s preeminent laboratory of ornithology. Even though I studied a foreign language, it was Spanish – and I viewed it as little more than fulfilling a requirement to graduate. I only wrote poetry or in my trusted journal, where I felt freer to pour my heart out than with anyone else. And when it came to my adolescent love life at the time, I dated a string of gangly, shy white guys – never daring to kiss outside my own race.

In short, my mother carried a very different image of me to her grave.

A painting of my mother done by my sister.
A painting of my mother done by my sister.

How did I end up in China? That’s a long story in itself – but suffice to say, I arrived in this country knowing hardly a phrase in Mandarin and little about the culture or history, never expecting I’d find a new career, a husband and a future for myself. I never expected I’d shed away much of the girl my mother once knew, turning into a completely different woman.

My greatest regret is that my mother will never be able to meet the person I am here in China – or, for that matter, to meet my husband John. Second to that, it saddens me to think that she’ll never be able to read my blog or anything else I’ve written – from the articles I’ve published elsewhere to essays I’ve contributed to two anthologies. What would she think of my decision to be a writer? How would she react when hearing me chortling away in Mandarin? Most of all, would she love my husband John? Would she see the same indomitable spirit in him that made me want to marry him?

I’ll never know the answers. And sometimes, when I contemplate these questions, I can fall into a melancholy funk, even crying. It’s funny that so much time has passed and yet, at times, it can feel as if my mother died just yesterday.

In light of all of that, here’s the strangest thing – I also don’t know who I would have become, had my mother not passed away.

Before her death, fear was my almost constant companion whenever I ventured into foreign settings. (I famously cried quite a lot during a high school trip to Spain without my parents, and I swear that were it not for the really caring teacher in charge of us, I never would have survived the entire journey.) I was such a homebody back then, so completely attached to my parents…and especially, to my mother. Deep down, I realize that her passing forced upon me one of the scariest things a young girl could ever face – and as a result, the fears I once had about living far from my parents and home eventually fell away. Without that experience, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to leave my own country for one I barely even knew.

A fortune teller in Taiwan once advised me that I had the ability to turn the bad things in life into something better. Was my unlikely detour towards China in the years following my mother’s death yet another example of this?

On this coming Mother’s Day, I’ll once again remember my own mother. And I know that, as much as I wish she could have been here to see me now, she’s still shaping the person I am in subtle and yet remarkable ways. That the legacy of being loved so deeply by a mother never really ends, even when the direction of my life takes me to places she never could have imagined.

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22 thoughts on “Mom, if only you could have known the person I became after China

  • May 4, 2015 at 7:08 am
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    Wow, this brought tears to my eyes. What an incredibly beautiful and bravely honest piece. My dad died when I was a teenager and I often wonder what he would think of me now (including my Chinese fiance). Thank you for sharing this. For what it’s worth it think you are a pretty incredible person (and I’ve never even met you!) so I’m sure your mother would be very proud!

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  • May 4, 2015 at 7:17 am
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    Oh, Jocelyn, I feel you! I wonder the same things, all the time. My mother never got to see me dance, or graduate with honors, or meet my Chinese-American guy. But I sometimes wonder if I would have done any of these things if she had lived.

    I wouldn’t trade the life and love I have now, not for anything, and at the same time I know my life would be very different if she hadn’t died when I was in high school.

    I feel oddly disloyal, being happy and knowing my life turned out this way because I lost her. I find the painful loss of the past and the happiness of the present difficult to reconcile at times.

    But ultimately, I think my mom just wanted me to be happy. And I hang onto that.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 9:47 am
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    This article is so heartbreaking. As clichè as it sounds, I am sure your mom would be incredibly proud of all your accomplishments. You are a great woman doing great things Joceyln and you deserve every bit of the success and happiness your are achieving.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 10:07 am
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    Such a touching article, Jocelyn! Maybe your mother’s watching you from somewhere (and if from nowhere else, she’s watching you from that special place you’ve reserved for her in your heart). I’m certain that she’d love the person you have become just as much as she loved you when you were growing up.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 10:08 am
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    What a beautiful tribute to your mother. I second all of the other comments above. Your mother sounded extremely proud of you and it seems like she has shaped– and is continuing to shape–who you are today. Big hugs and love from Chicago.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 11:20 am
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    Joss, I remember 1994, having known you for just a handful of months before your mom passed. You were a very interesting and good person then, and that has easily transitioned to today. I know your mother would have been proud of you. I barely remember talking to her before then, when I first became friends with you and Sue, but I seem to remember a warm person. The painting by Sue reminds me of photos I’d seen of her.

    This post makes me think the same thing about my wife, who is (of course) Chinese and lost her mother to brain cancer in 1991, long before she boarded a plane to come here to Pittsburgh, PA, USA, to marry me. I’ll have to share this post with her when she returns, as she is in Guangdong right now. But then again, she didn’t have warm, supportive parents like you did/do, so I’m sure her story is different.

    Keep a stiff upper lip, and hey, how about a post on the birds you are getting in China! Peace.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 11:53 am
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    You hit upon one of the saddest things about losing loved ones too soon: they can’t continue to share our lives or even know what we’ve become. It doesn’t seem right. You were so close to your mother, and yet she doesn’t know what you’ve become.

    My husband was only 59 when he died. It’s hard to believe that he wasn’t around when one daughter graduated from law school and another got married. He adored our first two grandchildren, but he only knew them as toddlers and now one is in college and the other is graduating from high school. The third grandchild wasn’t even a blip on the radar when he was alive. I wish they could have known him.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 7:27 pm
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    I don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent and it must be all the more heart-breaking when you yourself aren’t even yet into adulthood. My husband lost his dad to cancer in 2004, the year before we met. It saddens my husband that his dad will never know me or our son (luckily he was able to see my step-daughter as a newborn right before he passed away). Sometimes I feel sad too. I wonder what his dad was like, what his voice sounded like, what kind of grandpa he would have been.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 7:30 pm
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    A very moving and straight from the heart post.
    A mother’a love is unconditional and never ends, no matter what.
    You are a great person Jocelyn and you have accomplished so much. I believe that people are never really gone. They live on in our memories and heart.

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  • May 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm
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    Jocelyn, Thank you for this personal post. I can’t imagine going through all that. Well I believe you are a strong and independent woman now, with many that look up to you and turn to your blog for hope. Who would have known that previously you wouldn’t have dreamed of traveling outside your home country alone? I never would have guessed. ^_^

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  • May 5, 2015 at 12:09 am
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    What a touching post, Jocelyn, it is incredible to see your conclusion of how such a terrible thing has led you to John and to this new life. I am sure your mother would be incredibly proud of all that you have achieved!

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  • May 5, 2015 at 9:50 am
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    Really amazing post J…… brought me to tears.
    I often wonder the same thing – our ancestors could have never imagined the paths we would have traveled, and marrying a foreign partner was so unheard of back then, however I like to believe that they watch over us as guardian angels and travel with us in our hearts. My grandparents are now deceased but when amazing things happen in life (wedding, travels, baby) I often talk to them in my head and say “wow grandpa, look at this view…” or “grandpa, guess what happened?” They live on in our hearts….
    Big hugs to you on this Mother’s day…I know it must be hard 🙁
    xoxoxo

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  • May 5, 2015 at 11:24 am
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    She would be definitely visiting you in China. You would be more than happy to welcome your mom to your new found home in East Asia. That’s for sure.

    For now, you’re doing great from all those life events given to you.

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  • May 5, 2015 at 2:03 pm
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    Jocelyn, this was a truly heartfelt post. I am at a loss as to what I should say, but your story simply moved me. I know your mom would be so proud of you, and if she were alive today would definitely enjoy all of those trips to China–and most of all, be delighted to meet John.

    I’m glad you’re a writer–and more than that, you’re a warm and positive figure that has brought so many of us together here on this little piece of the Internet. You’ve been a friend and mentor to so many, and I think your mom would be glad that you found your calling in life.

    Best of wishes to you on Mother’s Day, and never forget.

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  • May 5, 2015 at 11:11 pm
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    To lose a relative and even worse a parents to a disease is a terrible thing. Many of my close relatives died due to cancer (two grandmothers and one grandfather, cousins…) and my mother was long time sick due to skin cancer in the 90s but defeated it as it was found out early enough thanks to a colleague of her who told her to get that spot checked out at her hairline…

    Ever since my mother also had cancer I am constantly worried about her and also about my own, as cancer seems to run in my family

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  • May 8, 2015 at 6:51 pm
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    Jocelyn. This was such a beautiful read and I was teary eyed. It’s evident that you love your mother a lot, and you love her as much now as you did back when she was still by your side. Sometimes feelings never fade, memories never fade – and they will stay within us for the rest of our lives. As you said, she is still shaping who you are as a person today – so in a sense a part of her is still with you.

    My grandparents have passed on a long time ago. I was never really close to them, but I often wonder what if I was, would life turn out different had I spent time with them. Probably, and I would probably have found out why my grandma chose to buy me a Gameboy with a big chunk of her savings all those years ago.

    It sounded like when your mother was still alive she thought of you as a very strong-willed and capable woman, one who can study hard, earn a PhD and stand on her own two feet. At the end of the day, I think parents want their kids to be happy. You’ve come so far in your personal and professional life and I’m sure if she saw you and John together today, she would give you the biggest smile 🙂

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  • May 21, 2015 at 5:32 am
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    Jocelyn, thank you for sharing your feelings here, it is a very touching piece. When a loved one dies, especially a parent, there is no replacement. Death is an enemy to all humans. Fortunately, there is hope that we can be reunited with them in the future. I’d like to share some encouraging information with you, here: http://goo.gl/KLR6al or if anyone would like to read it in Mandarin, here: http://goo.gl/sMF4Co

    祝你幸福!

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  • May 31, 2015 at 9:55 am
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    I didn’t know any of this about you! A touching post, and thank you for sharing with your readers.

    Reply
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