After "mothers and fathers" by Irene Hsu
content warning: racism, xenophobia
The ones who know how to keep spices for years, how to hang pork belly in the garage to cure with salt and ginger. How to spread mulch in a garden, how to prune dead branches from trees, how to care for bushes spotted with disease. How to nurse a scraped knee with saltwater solution. How to nurse anything with saltwater solution.
My dad is a software engineer, but before that he was a contract laborer, and before that he was a person who bought everything he owned on Craigslist. And before that he was a student, top of his class, and the youngest of six children, the baby of the family, the only one who gave a shit about school, the son of a rickshaw driver who died young and a woman who never had the chance at an elementary-school education.
My dad also voted for Donald Trump. For a while it was the only thing I could think about him—once I knew he was a Trump supporter, he ceased to be anything else.
I didn’t speak to him for almost two months after the election. It felt like a personal betrayal of the deepest kind, a fundamental denial of my humanity. I was consumed by a sea of hurt—fury at his selfishness and small-mindedness, disgust at having blatant bigotry so close to my face, helplessness that I had failed to change his mind.
The part that boggled me most was that Dad is an immigrant. He knows what it’s like—he jumped through the same hoops and fought the same fight. But since we’ve resumed talking I have been making an effort to listen, really listen, because he is my father. Because I love him, and this love is binding. I’ve struggled, am still struggling, with how to separate his political choices from this love, how to compartmentalize betrayal and the need to have certain parts of my identity validated, how to have a relationship with him when he can’t do that yet. Sometimes it still feels impossible.
My parents don’t like to talk about the past. They speak of their lives as if they were born the day they came to America in 1988. In their silence, I’d imagined myself as having no history. I have only recently begun to understand their pasts—the comfort into which I was born shielding me from the trauma between our generations, which was swept under the rug of collective amnesia.
Here’s what I know: Dad came to the United States in 1988. He was sponsored by his university in Shanghai, which was eager to capitalize on the economic reforms sweeping China in the 1980s. They gave him a B2 tourist visa and a job in St. Louis, Missouri that paid 300 dollars a month. He was 25 years old, single, being paid just enough to survive; still, he sent money home as often as he could.
During his second year in America, my grandfather passed away. Dad couldn’t go back to say goodbye as his father was deteriorating, or for the funeral, because of the terms of his visa. He wouldn’t return until nearly ten years after he arrived in the US, long after his father died, long after half his nieces and nephews married and started families of their own.
By then he was married, he fathered a son, and had relocated to California, where property values were much higher than in the Midwest. Most of his and my mom’s salaries were funneled into his mother in law’s hospital bills, as her kidney failure accelerated. During this ten-year period, he bought calling card after calling card to listen to the inhale-exhale of everyone he loved from the other end of the world, that tenuous phone line all he had to grasp onto his home.
A scholar named Marianne Hirsch coined the term 'postmemory' in the early ’90s. “Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that precede their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events,” she writes. To grow up with inherited memories is to be molded, however unconsciously, by the trauma of the generations that came before you. I’m not an immigrant, just a child of immigrants—I only see a fractured iteration of the world my parents grew up in, diluted through time and intentional distance. I get the Saturday Chinese school, the red envelopes once a year, the glimpses of something ineffable when the whole family is in the car listening to Teresa Teng, but not the pain, or at least not the same kind. Leave that part out. They wouldn’t want to know anyway.
These events happened years ago, to people who are not me but who look like me and act like me, or, more accurately, I act like them. (I have his eyes, his ears, his nose, his neuroticisms, and his inability to fall asleep in cars.) I am shaped by his memories, but they are not my own. Mine are the signifiers of his past that bloom to the surface in sudden, sharp ways. Like how he went berserk whenever food spoiled, and when spots of mold appeared on bread he would yell at me to eat it, don’t I know the value of money, don’t I know how hard they worked, and how much?
When I muster up the courage to ask him about Trump, why I couldn’t change his mind before the election, he seems relieved that I am finally willing to talk about it. He explains to me that his decision mostly came down to opposing certain pieces of legislation recently proposed by California Democrats, such as Assembly Bill 1726, which requires certain higher education and state healthcare forms to disaggregate AAPI data. In other words, it makes you specify what kind of Asian you are.
I can understand why this upsets him, though I don’t agree. If data were collected on the breakdown of Asian-American ethnicities of students at UC Berkeley, for example, it would likely be found that the majority are Chinese-American, which might in turn lead to affirmative action policies pushing for higher proportions of non-Chinese Asians, something he and many other Chinese immigrants see as anti-Chinese and a threat against Chinese-Americans striving for social and economic equality.
My dad talks of other minorities as if they are the enemy, as if they’re the ones preventing us from this so-called equality. The immigrant Chinese community in the United States tends to blame its problems not on the white power structure but on supposed favoritism shown to other racial groups. In my dad, this attitude manifests in racism of his own—in offhand comments about other people of color and in the contempt with which he treated someone I dated who was Indian.
He is, like so many other Chinese-Americans, seduced by the model minority myth because it tells us that we are the good immigrants, that we are better than them, that we deserve to be treated like white people. Haven’t I worked enough? Haven’t I earned all this, and more?
In the end, the version of equality they seek is no equality at all. It’s a vision of America no different from today: instead of working to undo the existing power structures that benefit white people at the expense of everyone else, they want to blend in at the top. Assimilate into white supremacy, accept it as the societal bedrock upholding anti-Blackness and anti-brownness, so long as we are on an equal playing field with white people. For instance, when thousands of Chinese-Americans rallied for cop Peter Liang's release after he shot Akai Gurley, what were they demanding, exactly—the right to kill Black people without consequence? The underlying question: if white cops can get away with it, why not us too?
I struggle to keep the emotion out of my voice when I ask him how he felt about the executive order barring immigrants from seven countries this January, when I say you’re an immigrant, too. He hesitates. I support immigration, I do, he says. I just… I can understand Trump’s anxiety over immigrants. There are so many now that they should be careful about who they let in.
But that’s what white supremacy does, I tell him. It makes you believe that we’re competing against them, when we should be asking why our spots are limited in the first place.
He’s silent, and I tell him I have to go, but I want to talk about this more later. For once, I mean it.
When love is a jar of hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator. When love is a box of frozen Marie Callendar’s chicken pot pies from Costco because your children won’t eat the food you pack them for lunch, when love is ginger tea on a cold day, when love is taking time off from work despite having lived in fear for so long that your job and income will slip away, again, like sand through a sieve. When love is turning to TV commercials and Sunday morning shopping advertisements like a plant turns its face to the sun, looking at whiteness, looking to become whiteness, when love is an attempt to give your children that which you cannot have.
I went back to China at 18, the first time in five years, to spend a month with my aunt and my grandmother. One day an old woman stopped me in the elevator, asking me if I was Jitang’s daughter. Startled, I asked her how she knew and who she was. You look exactly like him, she said with the kind of wise smile only the elderly can pull off, before disappearing into her apartment. My grandmother told me later that she was the mother of one of my dad’s elementary school classmates. They used to all live together in the same slum neighborhood, before the government relocated them all to an apartment complex. Gai ge kai fang, the dawn of modernity.
I saw old photos of Dad for the first time—at 20, at 24. I gawked over his eyes, my eyes, and his face, which I had never seen rendered with such irreverent joy. My aunt told stories of how kids from school used to follow him home to copy his homework, how he gladly let them. We should have charged for tickets, she said.
That apartment felt like home to me. When he Skyped them his whole face lit up in a way I never saw. I understood then how we were an island, we family of four, abiding by immigrant codes with a sense of stuckness, a permeating loneliness that was the loneliness from leaving everyone and everything you’ve ever loved.
Postmemory: how I refer to it as going back to China when I didn’t come from there. How I think of it as homeland, motherland, when it was never my origin but yours.
Early photos of the two of us make me want to cry. You, standing young and retro with your voluminous hair and large wire-frame glasses; me, small and rotund and swaddled. But the years between, the formative years, where did they go? To me you were all temper, scathing heat and disposition. Pressed lips and a frowning forehead that said, wordlessly, not good enough, never good enough, not even close. A girl, a stupid girl, a pin popping your immigrant dreams.
I always assumed that Chinese parents didn’t know how to express their love. It never occurred to me that maybe it was I who didn’t know how to receive it.
Now I hoard the scraps of memories: when you took a day off work to spontaneously take my brother and me to Fisherman’s Wharf. We skipped in the sun and saw the basking sea lions. All the times you held my hand as we walked outside and you threatened to toss me off a bridge. The nickname you used to call me: yatou, meaning duck head, servant girl, or, affectionately: daughter.
Learn this: how to form a word. How to form many words in many languages, how to remember that you are Chris now and not Jitang, how to say thank you, please, excuse me. How to say I'm sorry after you kick your daughter out of the house. How to say I love you I love you I love love love –without ever saying the words. How to say, and isn’t that enough? Haven’t I done enough?
It’s been a few months since I broke my silence post-election. A lot happened in that conversation: I told him exactly what his vote meant to me, I cried a lot, I came out. Enough time had passed that the last time we spoke he told me that he was trying to understand my identity, that he didn’t want to talk to me about it just yet but that he had gone to a seminar, and that it was helpful. And that someone at the seminar recommended him a book, and that was helpful too. I pictured a room full of Chinese immigrant parents like my dad, solemnly swapping stories about their queer kids like Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a funny image but touches a nerve deep inside me that makes me want to ask him why he ever immigrated.
This can’t have been the life he envisioned for himself upon landing on American soil thirty years ago. I want to say: I’m sorry. I want to say: I never expected you to understand me, I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you are trying, but please know that it still matters to me what you believe. That, I, too, am trying to understand you, and I will work at reconciliation from the ground up.
And—I want to say—I remember everything you’ve taught me, which teas to drink when I’m sick, which grains to boil, how to take care of another. I want to say: I am trying, but I need you to meet me halfway. I want to say—I am still learning how to be your daughter.
JACQUELINE GU B’17.5 lives in fear of moldy bread.