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. 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: newly remolded and much larger than we needed. There were two dining rooms, one contained period furniture from the family that had sold it to us: ornate chandeliers, and a dining table 3 feet long cornered off in gold dust.


We’ve since sold the house, with the furniture, and settled for more pragmatic furniture. Though over meals and in conversation, the chasm between us 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 that is without a language.

When language fails, its people become mute—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. 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 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 believe just as much 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 summers in this city and with that job. Having choice is foreign to them, there’s no room for much nuance or individuality. They were only allowed one homogeneous face, of migrants, of travelers—everything 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. 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 some internal shadow of myself—one who lives at home, and who cannot freely act in the way that I can because of that fact. I think of my friend from the plane, the sleeping giant—I empathized 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 ingénue; a crass and callous girl looking for some comfort in her impending requests to use the lavatory every half-hour. I left with a content bladder but an exhausted social capacity and a wealth of information: a debrief on his fear of parrots, why his first marriage didn’t work out among others. Who was holding her pee, pressing on about this strange giant’s odd case of ornithophobia? Might it be genuine interest? Regardless, he remains a body I had to negotiate with only because I had been demarcated within his limits. I was in my parents’ home, I had to: make conversation, be a daughter, feel at home.

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 of these masked motivations, 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 bitterness, half 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. 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 turn away and 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 deep 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.

We don’t ascribe to many traditions, but one that my Mom 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 Dad 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. At 50, he has accepted things as is but is fearful to expose his failure at manhood or adulthood for that matter. 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, having just woken up, half-past one in the afternoon. This is the extent of our exchanges, but the guilt continues. I’m guilty because I’ve stripped him of himself, and unlike my mother, he wasn’t as able to take any bit of it back. He brought me somewhere where anything could be but couldn’t see that that was possible for him too. But like with sadness, how strong is guilt? Can all my successes henceforth be the result of guilt? How viable is it to be motivated by guilt? Who do I ask these questions to?

I ended up taking a few pictures of my Mom and Dad. This was a new house, one I hadn’t come home to before. It was modest but it had a tree that stood strong in front, shielding us from passersby. My Dad felt that our house, in the context of this tree, felt underwhelming.  


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 from this photo. I never once shot a full frame of my Mom’s face but was less apprehensive when it came to my Dad. 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? A photograph is half mechanics and half a divine responsibility to truth. Studying it, I sometimes feel as if I am preparing to be a soothsayer. But truth-finding proves not much different than this divine responsibility a picture-maker feels. You empathize with your subject but you’re also continuously gauging the situation, monitoring their expresses ions. I am always plagued with the task of: “How am I supposed to assess this situation?” It’s similarly mechanical, equally as deductive. Suddenly, these two people, through this viewfinder, could be anyone. What emotions do my subjects show and what might these emotions warrant? I advance the roll and compliment my Mom’s figure and tease my Dad that if he was serious about modeling, maybe he should shave. I leave fearing what the uncaptured might show, and how soon might it.

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 fervidness as we put towards our future—that would be the event of returning home, at least for me. 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 last left—I read a poem following dinner:


I am not alone in my island of one. My parents chose to remain strangers and itinerants, 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. 

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. 


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