BY JULIA LI
Ma called me the other day. “Li Duo?” Even after trading Shanghai for the States as her permanent home for the past 21 years, my Mandarin name still rolls off her tongue melodically. My mother’s voice is lovely, deep and rich with natural rivers and valleys when she articulates the four tones of Mandarin. It’s mesmerizing when she speaks Mandarin, but to American ears, it’s cacophonous, curling harshly around choppy English phrases. “Yes, Ma?” Even after 19 years, I rarely speak in Mandarin back to her. “Li Duo!” She says in genuine surprise. Shock that I’ve answered the phone for the first time in a couple weeks. Emboldened, an almost unintelligible flurry of Shanghainese Mandarin escapes, the liveliness emanating so vibrantly through the phone that I feel myself wincing.
How are you? You haven’t called me in two weeks. I’m good, Ma. Busy with school. Your grades? They’re fine, Ma. You have all A’s? Yes, Ma. Except for organic chemistry. But I’ll bring it up. I always do. Good. Are you hungry? No, Ma. Are you eating well? Do you want Ma to send you some feng-li-su? Your favorite pineapple cakes. No thank you. Why not? I have enough food, Ma. The dining hall is fine. But that’s American food. You like it? I like the cinnamon rolls just fine. There’s a long pause. Ok, Li Duo. If you like American food now, that’s fine. I have to go study now. Class is an hour and I need to finish my homework. Ok. Ma will go now. You need to study more.
The phone hangs up with a click, and I set my phone back down.
Ma, do you know how much I miss you?
An ocean exists between my mother and I, growing wider by the distance and guilt that has simmered for the past ten years.
One moment, I picture the way she held my hand, pulling me along at Northpoint Mall in Atlanta where we
chased the New Years sales at Dillards, her favorite department store. Dill-ahs, she’d say over in her thick Mandarin accent. I want to go to Dill-ahs. After spending over twenty years in America, her jaw never fully softened around the syllables of English. We perused through gaudy purses and wool hats — my mother’s
favorite accessories, things that she was never able to have as a child in China.
I giggled jubilantly as I ran through the labyrinth of Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors, closing my eyes and imagining that we could afford them all. A surreal maze of authentic handbags — the real counterparts to my mother’s knockoffs from Shanghai. In Shanghai, Ma lived in a family of six — with two older sisters and an older brother, they crammed reluctantly into a run-down, two-bedroom apartment clustered with miscellaneous boxes as makeshift furniture and tiny fans to keep the heat at bay. During the hot Shanghai summers, Ma would run a few blocks down the dirt strewn streets, timing it perfectly to intercept her father’s arrival back from working at the nearby factory. There, she pleaded with her father for a few yuan to purchase snacks before her brothers and sisters had a chance to find out. After he finally acquiesced and slipped her a few yuan, she ran along to her local pop-up stand that sold tiny slices of cakes with dollops of fresh cream and candied citruses. Breathless as she scampered up to the pop-up stand, she laid the crumpled bills and coins down in front of the seller. “Yi ge. Xie xie.” One slice. Thank you. Racing along the backroads to find an abandoned table to sit and devour the cake that was delicately wrapped in napkins, Ma skittered to a stop in front of a tiny, run-down shop that sold second hand instruments. A tiny keyboard sat in the window display, its keys yellowed with age and coated with a thin layer of dust. She checked the price. 100 yuan. It was more than what her father made in three months. Still starstruck by the sight of the keyboard, Ma stood there for what felt like hours, eyes locked on the instrument. Finally, the outraged yelps and screams of her brothers and sisters as they turned around the corner snapped her out of the reverie. But it was too late— they circled her, demanding portions of her half-melted, dilapidated cake.
But back at Northpoint Mall, she waited patiently in the sprawling line at Auntie Anne’s, one hand resting on my shoulder and the other delicately arched as she pointed out the various flavors in a rough combination of Chinese and English — “Chinglish”. Every time, we pretended to entertain the possibility of trying something new, but in the end, we unanimously opted for the sweet almond pretzel. She handed over a few crumpled bills to the American cashier who would shoot other customers annoyed glances, unforgiving in her distaste towards my mother’s loud, unlawful combination of English and Mandarin. I clutched my mother’s hand tightly and imagined myself standing before all of them defiantly.
But I couldn’t — or I wouldn’t — was there a difference? Did the guilt that I carried make the situation any better? “Here you go,” she said. Warm, gooey sweet almonds encrusted the top layer of the chewy bread, the piping hot pretzel practically falling apart as she purposely split it unevenly. Always the bigger portion for me and a tiny sliver for herself. All these years, and she never lost her sweet tooth. Oblivious to the gazes of others, she spoke gently to me. “Eat, Li Duo.” Our relationship became strained when I started feeling like I couldn’t live up to Ma’s expectations. After starting piano lessons when I enrolled in kindergarten, we switched from teacher to teacher for the first three years until we stuck with Professor Cholakova. I devoted my hours to scaling my fingers up and down the piano keys, discovering the ridges and valleys that existed within octaves and augmented sevenths. Gleefully, I let my hands guide me to new melodic creases as I explored composition after composition. Bach to Beethoven, Chopin to Debussy, and Prokofiev to Rachmaninoff. By the time I turned ten, Ma began entering me into piano competitions. I slid my hands up and down the keys, teasing out Mozart’s sonatas at a local contest. Then came Glinka’s The Lark, and I flew through the three rounds of GMTA for two years until I won the title of conference recitalist, first place in state. The stakes climbed, so I pushed myself to keep up over the next few years, sprinting through Chopin’s Winter Wind and Beethoven’s The Tempest, only stopping to notice how my heart had long withered away from music somewhere along the way.
Have you practiced yet? Ma’s eyes are hopeful. Yes, Ma. I practiced for two hours. Not enough. Are you ready for the GMTA competition? It’s in a week, Li Duo. Ma’s eyes are dark now. Glistening. I remained silent. Go practice. Your lessons are expensive, Li Duo. I sat at the Steinway piano, mourning silently as I stared at the eighty eight black and white keys. I don’t want to play anymore. But I practiced with a quiet, simmering rage, pouring my resentment into Prokofiev’s piano sonata. Lost in the long hours of practicing, I didn’t notice part of my pinky nail tore off until ruby droplets freckled the porcelain keys. In my eyes, the keys were irrevocably blemished — forever stained with bitterness. I looked up, and I saw Ma gazing at the piano longingly, a rag fisted in her hand. It was her dream. I didn’t understand what exactly I felt, but it was a mixture of guilt, resentment, and grief. Guilt that I was able to access opportunities that she didn’t when she grew up dirt poor in Shanghai. Resentment that it’s now my responsibility to fulfill her dream instead of my own. And finally, grief for both of us — a mother with unfulfilled dreams and a daughter with a dream that is not hers. Ma, do you know why I was so adamant on moving five states away from you? You slammed my Common App essay down with such fervor that I jolted. Your hands shook, almost as if you couldn’t bottle in your anger anymore. Trash, you sputtered out in Chinglish. You won’t get into any college like this. Rewrite it. Then you left, your rag still fisted in your hand as you slammed my door on the way out with a force that shook the doorframe. I recognize now that it was not that you truly thought my essay was trash. Or perhaps you did — I don’t know. But behind that burning anger, I recognized the fear in your wide eyes. I spilled my struggles and resentment towards the instrument that forged the tumultuous sea that stands between us, letting loose the words that I had carefully kept tucked away in the little compartment in my mind. My thoughts and emotions exploded onto paper, raining down in colorful hues. Free at last. The words came out in harsh torrents, bubbling up to the surface like relentless tides of rage that I tried to cull for years. Ma, I rewrote my essay after that day, but I pulled the fallboard closed over the piano, locking it in its place. We never properly made up after that. Apologies in the house are never verbalized. Like any Asian family, they are smothered over, suffocated, and drowned out. But when the acceptances to my top choice colleges quietly rolled in, I came home to a splintered, sweet almond pretzel from Auntie Anne’s on my desk. The bigger portion, as always, was left for me. Now, as I sit in a study room at Fondren Library, I wonder now if I’m failing my mother. My eyes blur before the organic chemistry mechanisms before me. In between the lines of ozonolysis, I draw little oxygens to form molozonide, scribbling in a tiny sketch of my mother’s creases and wrinkles. Ma, were you ever proud of me? Ma, are you proud of the woman I’m becoming? Ma, you are beautiful, and you are strong. You are courageous, but you are sometimes flawed. But that doesn’t mean that it makes you any less beautiful, and I still love you despite the stark ocean between us. These are things that if I said them aloud to you, you’d merely scoff and tell me to go back to studying. Your hands — the hands that ached to learn the piano — are now wrinkled and scrubbed raw from handwashing each porcelain dish in the ice cold water because you don’t believe in relying on a dishwasher. Your eyes — the eyes that gazed longingly at the keyboard decades ago in a Shanghai shop — are blurry now as you wipe off the dust on the piano in the living room. Your lips — the lips that called out to your father for a few yuan to buy mini cakes — utter silvery, euphonious Chinglish as you wait in long lines to buy your daughter almond pretzels. I’m sorry, Ma. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to carry your dreams. But I’m strong enough to love you anyways.strong enough to love you anyways.