Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My Mother, My Father, and Me

Mom and Dad

In her Daily Cal article "I Now Pronounce You Arranged," Ilaf Esuf writes about her hometown’s tradition of arranged marriages and her certainty that she will marry someone who shares her precise cultural and religious background. Several lines particularly stood out: "I realize that to some, this concept reads like a nail in my coffin, but I disagree. My culture defines me. And though I could combine two different cultures and teach my children two different values, I know how hard that is. Beyond that, I want my husband to awkwardly talk politics with my grandfather in Tamil and to sit in one of our fields eating homemade chicken biryani with his hands—and most importantly, I want to perform Hajj with my husband. I want to share all the things that define me with the person who completes me.”

This line stood out to me, maybe because I wouldn’t exist if either of my parents thought this way. My mother grew up in poverty in 1960s and 70s China. The stories she told me from her childhood were typically light-hearted: herding ducks, having a crush on another kid in elementary school who was the classic “bad boy” because he rolled cigarettes, my aunt getting in trouble for eating peach skins off the floor.

My aunt (left) and my mom (right), some time in the late 1960s or early 70s.

Only later did I hear some darker things, like how my grandfather faithfully filed applications to join the Communist Party week after week, only to get rejected constantly because of being the son of a landlord. To this day, he beseeches me to read the Little Red Book, and has a Chairman Mao magnet on his fridge. Despite his adherence to Mao’s Communist ideals, as an educated teacher he was exactly the kind of person often persecuted by radicals during the Cultural Revolution. My grandmother knew that he would be especially targeted if anyone found his books (in—the horror!—English and Russian), but with Red Guard members going door-to-door, she knew that burning them—causing a plume of black smoke to rise from the home—would be too suspicious. So she hid them in pickle jars.  

During a recent family vacation my grandmother told another story, of an ancestor of mine. During one of China’s famines, she bought some chicken—a precious rarity—to bring to her husband, at work in a city far away. Bearing only a tiny scrap of paper with his address, she boarded a train. Somewhere along the arduous journey the paper was lost; illiterate, she had never read the address herself, and so upon her arrival at the train station, had no idea where to go next. When her husband received the telegram announcing her impending arrival that had been sent before she left, he went to look for her. He found her, dead of starvation and exhaustion, in a small hotel. The precious chicken she had meticulously prepared for her husband was intact, uneaten.

It’s hard for me to grasp how my mom emerged from this family tree so resilient, unafraid of risk, and constantly idealistic. After all, so many of the deprivations of her childhood were caused by political leaders enforcing their own iron wills (cough, Great Leap Forward, cough) in the name of progress and ideals. And I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the world my mother came from; I frequently find myself still uncovering pieces, like when we visited Alcatraz. She looked around the bleak bathroom with its stall-less line of shower-heads and commented that it reminded her of the showers she used in childhood. 

 “These are better, actually,” she said approvingly. “Ours were in a factory. We would sneak in every few weeks or so to use them.”

“You didn’t have them at home? Or at school?” I said, aghast.

“No,” she said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. 

While my mom was grateful to be showering in bathrooms slightly inferior to those of felons in Alcatraz, my dad, a white kid with a funny last name (the Czech name “Svitak” has as many ways to be mispronounced as it has letters), was getting C’s and D’s on his math quizzes in elementary school. I know this because I discovered some old quizzes of his in my grandpa’s house in New Hampshire, on vacation a few years back, and held them up to the light in shock. “Are these really yours?” I asked in disbelief, as if closer inspection would prove that the handwriting was Counterfeit Seven-Year-Old Dad. 

“Yeah. But you know, I was going through a tough time with my parents’ divorce…I think my teachers knew that,” he said, shrugging.

I was shocked because I’d always thought of my dad, with his doctoral degree in physics, as one of the smartest best-at-math people I knew. Suddenly, like the song the British sang at the Siege of Yorktown, it was “the world turn’d upside down.” 

In a lot of ways, my father’s childhood seemed to me like “the world turn’d upside down.” At an age where my parents wouldn’t let my sister and me walk to the grocery store by ourselves, he was sprinting into train stations, sometimes jumping onto trains that had started to leave the platform (another thing I would never be allowed to do), to travel between his divorced parents in separate cities. He moved a lot as a kid, too; legend has it that my uncle got so used to moving around the same time every year that he had a ritual: going downstairs and waiting in the driveway with his suitcase packed. 

They moved from New Jersey to Maryland to Pennsylvania (before he went back to NJ for school). Visualize a map of the United States at night. My dad grew up on that un-flickering archipelago of light stretching from Boston to Washington, DC; he lived with some of the nation’s biggest cities at his fingertips’ reach, long as the railroads could take him. It’s a reminiscence that makes him grumble about poor public transit on the West Coast (best coast!) and the way people drive in Seattle. Living in New York City this summer makes me feel simultaneously close to Dad and faraway. These madcap pedestrians, densely packed subway cars, and drivers who stop for no one (“it’s survival of the fittest,” Dad would say with a wink) all seem to exist in collusion to remind me that I will never really know how to travel these metropolitan East Coast streets. 

While my mom was reciting lines from the Little Red Book, my dad was poring over every book he could get his hands on. My grandmother (his stepmother), a voracious reader, filled the house with books on history, science, parenting, and more. He found himself doing science experiments in the garage, and his grades in high school in science and math were a lot better than those elementary school quizzes I dug up. He wrote poetry, and drew, and went to church with his family. I think of my mom’s stories from China the same way I think of my dad’s stories from the East Coast of sometimes tumultuous family life and unsupervised exploration of the world around him (he lost a front tooth in a bike accident before he was in high school); that is, they seem like tales from other worlds. 

Being half-Asian, half-white, I quickly learned that it was not their worlds that were Other, but myself. Society does a good job of teaching me that—we were never quite Asian enough for Asian parties, and to paraphrase the character Brook Soso in “Orange is the New Black," “you have an ounce of ethnic blood, white people think you’re made in China”; family takes care of the rest. I have never felt perfectly at home with either sides of my extended family, occasionally feeling like an anthropologist in the field as I observe my white relatives’ world of tables with runners, Sundays at church, and weird foods like meatloaf and fruitcake, chopped liver and cranberry sauce from a can. And when I visit my Chinese grandparents and speak haltingly in Mandarin I learned imperfectly, looking toward my mom or aunts and uncles or even five-year-old cousin for translation, I can see why you might think that I, and not just my language skills, feel incomplete. 

But ultimately it is this very upbringing, and my parents’ marriage of differences, that makes me feel loath to accept the idea that I should "share all the things that define me with the person who completes me.” In Daily Cal, Esuf writes that her culture defines her, “and though I could combine two different cultures and teach my children two different values, I know how hard that is.” My parents didn’t have to teach my sister and me two different values. The only values they us were the ones that know no borders—standards of human decency and empathy. The rest, they left up to us to decide. We were exposed to my maternal grandparents’ unique melange of tenets of Communism and Confucianism, and the genteel New England Episcopalianism of my paternal grandparents. My mother put a scarf over her hair and we walked into a mosque in London to talk to an imam about Islam. When I went to speak in Calcutta, conference organizers took me to the Hindu Dakshineswar Kali Temple, where we took off our shoes and bought sweets to offer the idol. My family walked under the tall wooden gate of Meiji Jingu, the Shinto shrine in Tokyo. And my parents gave me euros to buy candles to light under stern pictures of the Virgin Mary in Catholic cathedrals in Paris. My life is rich, not confused or torn between two opposing poles, because of the diversity of experiences afforded to me by my parents’ open-mindedness. I say "I wouldn’t exist if my parents didn’t think the way they do" not only because they never would have married, but because the mindset they espoused in their parenting made me who I am today. 

In thinking about race, culture, and love, I have to step back and appreciate that we have come so far within three generations. My paternal grandfather, growing up in Maryland, went to a segregated high school. My maternal grandparents casually make racist comments about any race that isn’t Chinese. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. In 1967, my father was five years old, and my mother was three. They were about to live completely different lives; but there’s something incredibly beautiful about the kind of world that allowed their paths to intersect. And maybe I’m biased, too, because I’m dating someone who is neither Chinese nor white. One of our mutual friends mused out loud once, “I don’t think this [interracial dating] will work out in the long term…it’s too hard with different cultures, you know?” I’m young. I can’t claim to divine what lies ahead. But this is what I know: my boyfriend’s different growing-up story and family narrative means that I have a window into a world I’ve never lived, the same way my parents gave me a window into theirs. Us being different means that we talk about stories in The Mahabharata and joke about the crude Mandarin phrases we both know. We eat Swedish lingonberry jam at IKEA and on the way back, listen to Bollywood tunes with the car windows rolled down and wind whipping through my hair like we’re a freeze frame in a new kind of all-American road trip movie. And sometimes I realize, I wouldn't be in that passenger seat without my parents. After all, without ever trying to, they taught me the important lesson that distance between the worlds we come from doesn’t have to equal distance between the hearts we share.


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