In 1949, the People's Republic of China was declared as China’s official governing body. The Great Leap Forward was carried out from 1958 to 1962. The Cultural Revolution lasted from 1966 to 1976. Officially, these steps were taken to develop agriculture and economy, advance women's rights, and increase literacy. Unofficially, it caused massive food shortages, deaths from starvation, and the disappearances of those who dared to disagree with the Communist regime. Growing up in Southern California, I didn't really know about any of this. Instead, I learned of the history of the United States, starting from Christopher Columbus, with pictures in books of people who looked nothing like me. The Magna Carta, the American colonies, the Constitution—it was supposed to be my history as an American citizen, but instead, it felt like reading a book with a protagonist that I couldn’t connect to no matter how hard I tried.
In my sophomore year of high school, I took an AP World History class. (I wondered why there was an AP European History class, but not for any of the other continents, but I honestly already knew the answer to that question.) Finally, I thought, as we arrived at the China unit, I would be able to learn about my own ancestry; about the country my mother and father and their mothers and fathers came from. But even this felt distant. My friends who had received Chinese history lessons concurrently with their Chinese language classes could tell me the names of the ancient dynasties in order without so much as a thought. Surrounded by people who could fluently speak their mother tongue because of their childhood upbringing, I felt a looming inadequacy hanging over my elementary school level Chinese. Moving on from ancient history, I learned about the overturning of the Qing dynasty, the forced opening of China’s borders, the invasion of the Westerners and the Opium War that lead to Hong Kong’s annexation by Great Britain, and then the events that lead into the dictatorship headed by Chairman Mao. This was supposed to be my history, but it didn’t feel like it was.
When I entered college, I took an introductory Asian American Studies class. It started out with things familiar to me, such as a high familial pressure to do well in school in East Asian families, and the there-is-opportunity-in-America mentality that is still so prevalent in immigrant communities. But as the term continued, the topics branched out: Indian American hotel ownership; Vietnamese American nail shops; Cambodian American donut shops; Asian Americans and their groceries, their laundromats, their other small businesses. In contrast, my mother works for Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation in the procurement department, while my father is a staff member at an elementary school. I quickly realized as my professor talked about her experiences as a biracial woman that this wasn’t my history, either. It was an engaging course, but I think my professor specifically wanted to reinforce the idea that all Asian Americans have different experiences. In the process, the label of Asian American became more distant from my own understanding. As I did the readings and wrote reflections, and recalled the stories me mother told me, I realized very clearly that while Chinese people have always held biases against other races, there is no racial category they are more biased against than their own.
My mother was born in 1965. She’s never told me the exact timeline of her childhood, but as a child, she was raised by her 姨妈, not her own parents. 姨妈, or Yima, roughly translates to aunt, but my mother’s Yima was not related to her by blood and was instead a friend of my 婆婆, Popo or maternal grandmother. My maternal grandparents, at this time, were doing their best to escape the Chinese government. Popo went to Hong Kong, while my 公公, Gonggong or maternal grandfather, had been in and out of jail, as well as a refugee in Vietnam for a period of time, before finally managing to migrate to California with the help of his brother. “Your Gonggong visited me once as a child,” my mother says. “But I didn’t see him as my father. How could I? He did not raise me. I think he was hurt by my rejection of him, though. And his invitation for me to come live with him in America was his way of trying to make up for not being there for me as I grew up.” She laughs. “Popo did not approve. She said that he didn’t feed me enough. As if she was there for me any more than he was!”
My maternal grandparents divorced and remarried. Popo traveled from Hong Kong to Vienna, and finally settled down in Toronto, where she passed away last year. Gonggong lives in nearby Alhambra with my other Popo, where my aunt Katherine grew up. I don’t know the exact timeline on these events, either. My mother doesn’t like to speak of it, saying it’s too depressing, and as I grew older, I had to piece together small crumbs of information that my mother imparted to me. Even now, my knowledge is incomplete and punched through with holes as I desperately try to recreate my family’s history.
For all of my life, my mother has been a working woman. For as long as I can remember, she has gotten out of bed, cooked herself breakfast, and then left for work before I was even awake. She would come home in the evening, dark nights during daylight savings, and cook dinner, and my family: dad, mom, brother, and me, would sit together and eat. My younger years were spent being attached to the hip to my dad, who first worked nights, then changed to part time, in order to look after me and my older brother when school was let out. I remember when I used to sleep in the bunk bed, drowsy from a late night. My dad would kiss me good bye on his way to work, the warm light from the living room lamp filtering into my bedroom. He doted on me back then, and I adored him in return.
Some things don't change. My mother still wakes long before me, and comes home after the sun has set. I still love the food she cooks the most. When I come home from college, she asks me what I want to eat, intent on making my favorite dishes. We all sit together at the dinner table, and I fight with my brother for the best pieces. She hugs me often: when she picks me up from school, when I return to her after wandering around the supermarket, when I'm fresh out of the shower and she's tucked away in bed. I know she misses me when I'm away.
I'm twenty years old. Sometimes I still feel like that child who needs to be tucked into bed, whose hand needs to be held as she falls asleep. But at this point in my life, I wouldn’t want to touch my father with a 10-foot-pole, and going home is often an exhausting exercise in futility as I listen to my mother lecture me on the same things that she complained about the last time I came home. Now that I’m older, shouldn’t it mean that my mother can trust me with more information? Instead, I’m still left picking up scraps and pieces of who my parents are, and in conjunction, who I was raised to be.
Food is central to Cantonese culture, and thus is central to many of the stories my mother tells me. When I eat two slices of toast for lunch because there’s nothing else that I’m interested in eating at home, my dad lectures me on not eating properly, and my mother later pulls me aside. “He didn’t get enough to eat, growing up,” she confides. “Sometimes I think he gets jealous of me, because even though I was poor too, my siblings gave me the most delicious parts of what we could buy. That’s love, you know?”
Her siblings, as she calls them, and as I am supposed to refer to them, 姨妈and 舅父, Yima and Kaufu, my aunts and uncles, are not related to us by blood. They’re my mother’s Yima’s biological children, but my mother tells me that despite not being her real child, they did not love her any less. “My high school,” she tells me, “was a boarding school. The food was awful! They didn’t even know how to cook rice porridge without burning it. I was so hungry then. On the weekends, I would bike home to eat your Yima’s cooking, and then bike back to school with a bag full of food.” We go out to eat with them sometimes, or at least with the ones who live in California, and often use the excuse of visiting relatives to meet up even more.
We have family get-togethers with my Gonggong’s side of the family as well. “When I first came to America,” my mother says, “I don’t know what Shanshan (my aunt Katherine) thought of me. I was so much older than her when I immigrated, and she had never met me before. I wonder if she felt that her father favored me.” She sighs. “Gonggong is the opposite of me, not a picky eater at all. When I bought vegetables to cook at home, he asked me why I was wasting so much money! Back then, the supermarkets only had two or three of our Chinese vegetables, and they were so expensive to buy. They weren’t even the good parts of the plant! Nowadays, there is more variety, in the supermarket and in restaurants, because so many Chinese people have come to live here in recent years. I moved here so long ago because there were so few Chinese—I don’t like the community that is created when so many Chinese live together. They are so hostile to each other.”
My mother sometimes takes me out to 点心, also called 小吃 (dimsum in Cantonese, xiaochi in Mandarin). I feel most Cantonese in dimsum restaurants, sitting next to my mother, where I can ask for more water and say the names of all of my favorite dishes in Cantonese, the first language I learned. When it’s crowded, she tells me, “When I was a child, people didn’t often take their children out to dimsum because it was too expensive. My Yima took me out anyway. When it was this crowded, we would have to stand by a table that we thought would soon be done with their food, and grab their seats as they vacated. It’s all so civilized now in comparison.” She watches me eat a cha siu bao. “I’ve never liked eating those,” she says. “When meat used to be very expensive, the cooks would fill the buns with the cha siu flavoring, and only put a tiny piece of meat inside—or no meat at all!” She criticizes the ha gao. “They never make these right anymore. They’re supposed to chop it up before wrapping it, not just hand us an entire piece of shrimp in rice wrapping.”
She’s a picky eater, and fancies herself somewhat of a food connoisseur. “My Yima raised me to be discerning of food,” she tells me. “I’ve tried to raise you to be the same—but sometimes I think I might have gone too far. You should really eat more!” She laughs. “I used to enjoy eating rice and chicken, but when you told me you didn’t like them, I gradually started disliking them as well. You have so much influence on me.” She pokes and prods at my skin, too tan for her liking. “You’re my chocolate daughter,” she says fondly. “When I was pregnant with you, you made me crave chocolate so much. I bet it’s why, even now, you like to eat so much candy. Stop eating so many! They’re giving you acne!” Even as she says that, she buys me sweets and brings home cakes from work.
Even though I’m still not altogether certain of my own identity, I don’t blame my mother for being reticent about our family history. She has always cared deeply for me even through our numerous misunderstandings. Her concern for her family’s wellbeing comes through in all of the stories she tells me about them, and I know that concern carries over to me as well. Above all, she is my mother, and she wants what she thinks is best for me.