Strangers Among Us

Story for a dweller, a stranger, and a daughter

by Wen Zhuang

Illustration by Kevin Dong

published April 12, 2018


Land’s end. But there’s water, O my heart. And salt on my tongue.

The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.

— Susan Sontag, “Unguided Tour”


To preface: I grew up in a two-parent household, where a safe space was always available for me to grow into my own, whatever that was to be. Any lamentations thus put forth by an ultimately undeserving me have little to do with the character of my parents and the quality of their care. Nor do they seek to undermine all that comes with a healthy two-parent household, under a roof much larger than needed.

That withstanding, returning home feels much like dragging my nails down an unending chalkboard,  though unsure whether I am being dragged or dragging. All things can go in any direction, every meaning can either mean what it means or mean what it doesn’t. Either way, the feeling is equivalent to 500 screams stifled. I’m left unequivocally bound to navigating this mid-ground, where the goal of a ‘whole’  is long abandoned— whole meaning, whole understanding, whole communication and eventually, a whole home. Like 10 inches of snow in April, or having to pee on an airplane while seated next to a sleeping giant. Situations that garner frustration— an excessive amount—but not strong enough to warrant any concrete reaction. Circumstances you are affected and altered by but seem too large to be subjective. Like the weather to my body or the seat-assignment to my space. They’re my parents, and thus I am bound to them—in promises much graver than vows—in sickness, health, agony, disappointment, irritation, even in inevitable breakage, we remain contracted.

My parents are hardworking to a fault. They grew up with just enough—on farms in the northeast of mainland China where one bedroom would always be crammed with too many heads for the number of cots. They came to America in their mid-30’s with even less than that: enough to spend on a temporary two-door rental and a studio barely fit for them and a then 6-year-old me. That one-bedroom grew into three, then four, as we moved from the San Gabriel Valley to Orange County. Our neighbors were now mostly Caucasian and our house built within the past year—my parents had no friends, but we amassed a large archive of pictures in the years following, mostly posed and poised in front of our house. There were two dining rooms—one for ‘formal gatherings’ and another for dinners. Now the space we share is split by something much larger than three feet across the dinner table, or the 4 bedrooms for 3 heads, or even the 3,000-plus miles across the ocean—there is so much lost in translation, and even more untranslatable. One might assume a need for translation would mean there was content already existing—not in this case. We don’t make conversation. I arrived home on a red-eye Monday morning and left on a red-eye that Friday night. In all that time, we exchanged enough words to fit a page, single-spaced. What we try to translate becomes the scooting around near walls, the setting of bags on tables, the frail eye contact, the thickset emotions we’ve held and those that we’ve forgotten we were feeling. Feelings we’ve continued on living with for so long, there’s a stench—almost poison.

My parents aren’t Trump supporters nor are they closeted homophobes. They didn’t mind that I smoked a cigarette at age 14 and wanted to travel alone to China at age 12. They sent me off to art school with no dissent. On paper, they’re pragmatic and easy-going, especially for a culturally-traditional Chinese household. As much as I am sure that they aren’t all of the above, I am just as much doubtful that they could be. The fact of the matter is: I don’t know them and I couldn’t. Their selfhoods, unlike mine, aren’t weaved through with chosen political identifications, niche preferences for food, art, and culture, or a beaming resume of this venture and that. There never existed much choice and thus, no room for much nuance or individuality. They were only allowed one homogeneous face. One of migrants, of travellers—all contingent on this new place, their journey.  Everything was thus decided solely around, for, and because of this circumstance. I try hard to convince myself their decisions were intentional, and that they would be here with or without me. But I know, from observing my grandparents, my aunts, and now my newly pregnant cousin, that the Chinese live until their children begin to. I think of the tale 孟母三迁 (Meng Mu San Qian) where the mother moves three times in order to find the appropriate place to raise her son. There never was a question as to where she came from, where she would’ve liked to go, or where she was on her way to prior to this son. She, like my parents, had her freedom sacrificed. This circumstance  has left me heavy with the weight of three. I fall asleep nightly to the worries of these offset breaths. How can I even begin to ask who I am? Who, if anyone, do I owe myself to?

A week back home is a boot-camp in empathy and negotiation, as much with my parents as with an internal shadow of myself—one who lives at home, and who cannot freely act in the way that I can because of that fact. She has to empathize and negotiate her language in order to communicate. Though oftentimes, the motivation for her communication is unclear.  I think back to my friend, the sleeping giant—I empathised with his discomfort, how his seat must have felt as though it were built for a toddler—and he with me—living with a tempestuous bladder. But our empathy could go only as far as just that, a feeling. Something that strikes a few chords in my heart—though mostly in my mind—and draws me to act, faking ingenue. An inherently selfish state of affairs: my efforts in extending our conversation veiled this crass and callous girl looking for some comfort in her impending requests to use the lavatory every half-hour. I left the airport knowing all that and much more: a debrief on his fear of parrots, why his first marriage didn’t work out among others. Whether it was this shadow that was holding in her pee, pressing on about this strange giant’s odd case of ornithophobia, or whether it was a genuine interest, he remains a body I had to negotiate with only because I had been demarcated within his limits.

It might seem aberrant to place my parents, who could have never been strangers, in the same context as this friendly giant. But I wonder: who would we be to each other if there ever was a choice? He was ignorant to this shadow of mine, or maybe he wasn’t. I was ignorant to his double entendre—why share the fact about his odd fear of parrots? Did he feel I was trustworthy enough to know? Was he some narcissist who felt every personal detail necessary to make a point of? Was I being used, while I used him? As he and I had been guessing and gauging, so are my parents with me and I with them. Or maybe he never had any such double entendre and maybe my parents don’t think of me.

When you don’t know a person, your mind wanders off and wades in ambiguous, often scary waters. My parents and I are encircled in this ring of half suppressed bitterness, half suppressed love, where we collect what we can decipher and prick at each other in hopes that one sees through the other. In the case of my giant friend and me, the state of affairs lasts the duration of the plane ride. But how can I even begin to issue a forthcoming date of termination to home, to family?

I sleep with my Mama when I’m home—my parents have a king bed and it’s extremely firm. She doesn’t hear me turn, and quieter are my fears, though they leave my dreams largely disquieted. I fear for the day where the gap between us draws so far, nothing will be left of our relationship aside from a gaping black hole of all things lost and indecipherable. For the first three years of college, she used to message me at the end of each semester and inquire on the results of my tests—as in, how well did I fare on the grading scale? I would respond and tell her I got straight A’s but that it didn’t matter so much as we weren’t graded by multiple choice quizzes and things like that—wondering if she forgot she allowed me to go to art school. She might have not known, just trusted I knew what I was talking about. She congratulated me and I said thank you, and next year we repeated this thread. Sometimes when we sleep, both my arms are wrapped around her and other times, I’ll cry into the pillow. I am and fear I shall invariably remain unsure as to where I feel this sadness from or why I do. I try to decipher it by pinpointing a dominant emotion and situating it within a recent context, but as I’m writing this, I’ve only been home three days. I’ve only seen her for one. Where then, is it from? Why does it come? Maybe even more important, how strong is this sadness? An act precipitated by sadness—how much load can it bear? I ask this in a near fit of panic—fearing that this sadness has seeped into the fabric of our relationship and the life that my parents have built for us gave way to this sadness. One brick in the architecture of it all. And lots of mortar. I hope for my sake that this sadness is strong.

The structure stands firm but my family’s history with this life is short and its details are largely unattended to. We don’t ascribe to many traditions, but one that my Mama has always championed is sharing a meal at the end of the day. She grew up on a farm, where she had five ai-yi’s, six biao-jie’s, three ge-ge’s, and many village neighbors. Familiar faces were abundant and one could never imagine being left alone to attend to one’s meal. For me, it’s always been just the three of us, and the meals were largely quiet, still alone but together. My Baba is 50 years old, speaks enough English for his previous job at a warehouse, and my Chinese, though fluent, is slow. We make do. Sometimes that means beginning many conversations and ending none. On this particular Friday, I had taken portraits of my Mama before dinner. I hadn’t asked my Baba because I was assigned to study a subject, and that subject needed to be one I felt most akin to in life. Mama is head of the house theoretically, but my Baba is head of the house by way of history, culture, pride. She cooks, cleans, and has single-handedly put me through school loan-free. My Baba engages in most of the yardwork and has taken years to turn his anger into self-congratulatory pride. I felt more akin to my Mama because she rose strong where my Baba fared weak and conversations with her carried a more comfortable, easier succession, as each word didn’t need to follow with its prescribed definition. Despite all else, I love my Baba—I feel the blow to his heart; one-third of me is him. Though he has looked largely defeated in recent years,  he still retains a good amount of his dry wit and brash humor. He joked around for a moment—about my earlier photoshoot with Mama and how I wouldn’t have had the money to afford him as a model anyway. Or that Mama is extremely dumb for working for free; she should charge! And lots of it! This was another one of those conversations that began and met no end, nor even precipitated any continuation. At 50, he has accepted things as is, but is fearful to expose his failure to be a man. Due to this, he hasn’t made one friend in the past 18 years, and will sometimes text me photos of our cat, and other times he’ll tell me he feels lonely and has just woken up, half-past one in the afternoon. This is the extent of our exchanges, but the guilt never ends. I’m guilty because I’ve stripped him of himself, but like with sadness, how strong is guilt? Can all of my successes henceforth be the result of it? How viable is it to be motivated by guilt? Who do I ask these questions to?

I ended up taking a few pictures with my Baba included. If Walter Benjamin was right about the camera, that it would introduce us to “unconscious optics and thus instigate unconscious impulses,” then I was to see what I would otherwise be unable to. I never once shot a full frame of my Mama’s face. I was less apprehensive when it came to my Baba. I shot him full-faced, in the background, in his pajamas. I, like Sontag once said, nearly positioned the camera as a sublimation of the gun—“to photograph someone is a subliminal murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time”—but who was the camera pointing to? Who is the sad, frightened one? If there exists too much life within me for one, would it still be considered murder? I advance the roll and compliment my Mama’s figure and tease my Baba that if he was serious about modeling, maybe he should shave. I leave fearing what the uncaptured might show, and how soon might it.

I study a medium that some might posit as mechanical. It’s never devoid of a divine responsibility to truth and an ethical representation of it. I sometimes feel like I am actually studying to become a soothsayer. Truth-building comes first with a breaking down. As much as home is a practice in empathizing, it is also a practice in gauging. I am always plagued with the task of: “How am I supposed to assess this situation?” It’s similarly mechanical, equally as deductive. What emotions should I show and what might these emotions warrant? Events that happen at home conjure feelings that are definite and discrete yet difficult to contend with—all feelings that would be completely and totally left as forgotten, read-over, until I am made to remember them. If there ever were to exist an act of remembering that constituted a hitherto unborn memory, if ever our past can be devised with as much clarity and fervidity as we put towards our future—that would be the event of returning home. It seems I am always a beginner here. Always at a loss—not just for words, but for any trace of who I am when I am not trying to not be me—I read a poem following dinner:


How people respond to them yet know them not,

How there is something relentless in their fate at all times

And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for         the same great purchase


I blanked on the second to last line of this Whitman poem. I wonder often about the “price” and the “purchase”. It’s a poem built on mostly rhetorical questions that end with periods, about 10 lines long. It doesn’t matter, as I am not reciting it to anyone. Whitman is a stranger to my parents. Benjamin, Sontag, all tonal bites, same as Cat, Apple, Candy. I feel a slight tinge of guilt whenever I excuse myself earlier than they would have hoped, to read a book or watch a movie that’s far from what they might understand. But I am comforted knowing that even in the face of complete separation from those closest to me, I might be able to conjure up new places where I could feel whole and grounded. Even if those spaces are lonely. Even if they exist on pages, in text, or behind a screen. Comforted, also, thinking my parents might have created these spaces for themselves, too. They might still be.

The thought of loneliness reminds me that my parents chose to remain strangers, continuously bound to beginnings so that I might be subject to a different fate. I am eternally indebted to them. In the face of so much progress, I forget that one might never be able to drain the strange out of a stranger, the foreign out of the foreigner. I still stand as one, prouder to be a stranger than the nervous six year-old me had been, but one I still stand. In the homes of my friends, in the classrooms, on paper and in the psyche of this large American landscape, I am no less foreign. I now must stand strange even in front of parents. I couldn’t bare them this truth though, I couldn’t watch them rebuild a broken heart.

We moved in 2003, when I was six and they were 33. In truth, we were all mute, fearful toddlers, unsure and without a common language. My poems might be read horizontal and theirs vertical, there might never be an adequate translation of an idiom like 好书如挚友 without a dire case of oversimplification: ”Good book, good friend.” But what failed communication and insufficient translation might make way for is some new form of understanding. We are reading words, whether horizontal or vertical. But can a rose be a rose when one is one word and another is three, 玫瑰花(méi guī huā)?

I fear, perhaps, that the real severance will happen when words no longer need spaces in between to be coherent: aroseisaroseisaroseisarose. Until then, my parents and I can at least nestle in what we have in common; vertical or horizontal, English or Chinese, American or not, we are still allowed the emptiness left between the words. We might still find comfort in these blank white spaces, even just to breathe.


WEN ZHUANG RISD ’19 is vying for the lone-seater at any restaurant.