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.
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.