My mom recently returned from her first trip to China. I imagine growing up as a Chinese American in the 50's was not easy, particularly with a bitter mother, still stinging from her arranged marriage at 17 to a smart but unimpressive American-born Chinese fellow. For more years then I can remember, my mom wanted to just be American. Sure, we ate with chopsticks every now and then and had shrimp in lobster sauce on special occasions, but on most days, she tried hard not to be Chinese.
Being Chinese meant being hated - as a young girl with a traditional Chinese mother with an abusive nature. Her buck teeth and thick black hair made her stick out amidst the blonde and blue-eyed WASPs at the desks next to her. She married my dad to get away from them and their Asian-ness. They didn't speak again until I was born and even then, we only saw them on rare holiday gatherings.
I don't blame my mother for her choices. Diversity wasn't a concern until the 90s, and by that time, she had long lost her Chinese speaking abilities. Her only positive childhood memories were of her grandmother - the one who had always believed in her - the one who had always shown her what being Chinese meant.
I was always fascinated by pictures of my great-grandparents, and I loved hearing stories about my great-grandfather, one of the "fathers" of the Washington DC Chinatown and the first American born Chinese citizen in that same city. We would play cards with my great-grandmother for hours - in her little house on Georgia Ave. I only knew her as the caretaker of my great-grandfather who had suffered a stroke the year before I was born. But I loved her.
I could never understand a word she said, but I was always amazed at how my mom could. My great-grandmother would put out yesterday's dinner for breakfast, give us Chinese date candies, and let us watch the only two movies she owned - Grease and Ben Hurr. I remember her scratchy crocheted blankets and amazing gold and jade jewelry, particularly the circular necklace she always wore. It was a beautiful light green from being near her skin for so many years.
Her hands were wrinkly but soft - and her nails were always well manicured. We'd play cards for hours and hours - her muttering only quiet words like "good cards" when she'd pass me a handful of crap during our hearts games.
I never knew how much my mom loved her until she died and my mom decided to stop talking to her parents. And then I knew that my grandmother had saved my mom whenever she could. That she was the one who made being Chinese proud and honorable.
And so, as my mom returns from a trip she has dedicated to my great-grandmother, I'm so proud that she has reclaimed her heritage and not allowed it to be her downfall. That she has taken what could have been a deep and dark history and made it into something worthy of remembering. And I hope that she found what she was looking for - for herself and for her grandmother.
Perhaps they met again in the beautiful place where it all began - through the sights and sounds of a country my mom has never seen, but in a way, has known quite well. And I hope that it brings her the peace that she desires and deserves.