The story of how it all unraveled ends with me stumbling out of your house and into your son’s Jetta, where he has been waiting for the last 40 minutes. How did it go? he asks gently.
Fine, I snap. She recorded our conversation, so why don’t you go and hear the whole thing for yourself?
He stiffens. Resentment is a nasty emotion. It seeps out of my pores. I bask in it. It screams at me to eke out a reaction from him — an apology, an acknowledgment, anything resembling repentance — that he doesn’t give. When he eventually turns on the engine to drive me home, my resentment instructs me to say nothing and turn away.
While you sip your tea nonchalantly, I study your white walls, wondering if you are expecting some kind of emotional display from me. A sob, maybe. My tearful begging for forgiveness. None of these options seem appropriate, not with my Chinese capital S-Shame festering.
When the tension becomes unbearable, I finally ask, So, are you telling me to break up with him?
Then you’d just be a little martyr, wouldn’t you?
Your tone is scathing, sneering, dripping with the viscosity of cheap maple syrup.
Close your eyes. Ignore the condescension. Pantomime a bubbly, friendly, capital-W White woman. Pretend. Can your phone recorder pick up my pounding heart from the possibility that you had said yes?
Okay, I say, Fine.
You cock your head and shoot me a pointed look as though you’re unsure of why I am still here. I don’t know either. I realize that perhaps you’re waiting for me to affirm your assertions, smile and say, thank you, more, please.
Instead, I dig my cuticles, newly raw and fleshy, into your sofa. To moor myself. The pain — it shoots up my nerves, burning, numbing. For the first time in days, I am clear-headed. My words, finally uninterrupted, burst out in a staccato, stumbling over one another. I tell you: I’m here now trying to make an effort and show that I am committed to your son but I clearly won’t change your mind so I’m just going to leave and we can try to coexist amicably but I’m not going to apologize or force you to accept me, okay?
Nothing. Moments later, you shrug. Your face stays guarded, betraying nothing. I want to hurl your mug across the room to see if you will react. The silence mocks me.
Moments after I ring the doorbell, you invite me in. My churning stomach threatens to reveal its contents and I am seized by the desire to flee. This is a mistake.
How are you doing? I ask, instantly regretting the feigned politeness. We both know you are here to dismember me.
Fine, you reply.
Your tone is scathing, sneering, dripping with the viscosity of cheap maple syrup.
An awkward silence engulfs the room. You banish it by playing the part of a polite hostess and offering me tea. I decline even though my mouth is chalky. Fine, you repeat. I’m going to fix myself some.
You return with a steaming mug. Do you mind if I record our conversation? you ask. It’s just, you know, it’ll be better, for both of us.
You look at the accused unreliable narrator — me — with an expectant look like I am missing my cue to refuse.
Go ahead! I reply and — is that a look of disappointment?
As soon as you tap on the “record” button, your expression hardens. We’ve known each other for a while, haven’t we? you say. My nod goes unrecorded.
I’ve had a bad feeling about you the moment we met, you say indifferently, as though we were discussing the weather. Family is really important to me, and I won’t let you take that away,
In Chinese, 小 siu² (little) 心 sam¹ (heart) refers to carefulness, two logograms paired to convey how, in order to metamorphosize yourself into a smaller target, you must metaphorically shrink yourself and I can feel the skin on my neck prickling, even though I have heard all of this before and I am already so, so small.
We met under awkward circumstances, I reply in deference. After my third date with your son, literally —
— I’m really good at reading people, you say tersely. And I don’t know how you were raised, but this isn’t what our family is like.
As my fingers absentmindedly shred slivers of skin from my thumb, your accusations flow — women, selfish women, women with malevolent intentions who lure men away from his family — and I can visualize her — me — clearly, this conniving woman shrouded in a veil of meekness who came from a strange place and has nothing real to say, completely different from the fierce, empowered, engaging women that you had raised your son to pursue. I wonder if I am depressed. Depression seems like a small price to pay.
I cannot sleep. I take melatonin gummies, weed chocolate and shots of lukewarm vodka with no chaser, but they only make my head throb when my alarm vibrates against my skull. On my commute, I wear the red indent of my phone across my face. It’s Sunday, Monday, Wednesday. It drizzles. Then, sunshine, a cold draft, clear. When I cannot sleep, I cannot think. When I cannot think, I cannot carry on a conversation. My hands, they never stop trembling. Every morning, my face lights up from the artificial glow from hundreds of messages in various group chats. Tear gas, again. Flailing limbs disappearing behind a cloud of batons and riot shields. A pair of goggles, punctured by a bean bag round — a deceptively innocuous description for lead balls fired from a shotgun. On Friday, the morning we are supposed to meet, I wake up, startled, alone, thousands of miles away and expecting my fingers to be wet with blood.
It rains, uncharacteristic for springtime in San Francisco. Small, ominous lakes have puddled on the streets, thanks to the drains clogged with wet leaves and garbage. On the bus ride to your house, I am sardined between soggy commuters, forced to overhear their noisy and uninhibited conversations about CRM and Google and Burning Man and Tahoe ski trip weekend and gentrification. All I feel is the desire to snap at them to quiet down, shut up, please, just shut up, but instead, I grit my teeth so hard that my brain starts throbbing and my clenched fists leave perfect moon-shaped nail indents in my sore palm.
When did my feet become adult feet? Toenails — yellowed; soles — hardened; knuckles — knobby. While waiting for the shower to heat up, my phone erupts with notifications that all point me to headlines that read:
“Hong Kong university student dies following fall near police operations.”
“Hong Kong police shoots protester amid clashes.”
“Hong Kong riot police fire tear gas near university campus.”
In the shower, I pick at my mangled feet with a pumice stone until the skin is red and stinging, even though the calluses always return the next day, angrier than before. I imagine the conversation you’re currently having with your son over dinner:
You ask him, What do you see in her?
He sighs. I don’t want to talk about this again.
I just don’t understand what you see in her. Is it her hair? Her tits?
He avoids your eyes, eats a fork of pasta, or maybe it’s pizza. We’re actually more similar than you think, he tells you, And she makes me happy.
I don’t get it.
We raised you to respect your family.
I do respect my family.
Well, you’re clearly not respecting my opinions about this issue.
That’s not fair.
You’ve been reading the news, haven’t you? you ask casually.
You know I’m just looking out for you so you don’t get hurt, right? That’s what mothers do, that’s what love is. So why do you refuse to entertain the idea, the possibility, that she’s dating you for a green card?
And, scene. That’s just how it is, how it always will be. I am familiar with the script and its many iterations, sometimes spoken aloud but most often mulled over in silence by those looking out for the handful of forgettable men I have dated since landing in this country.
For dinner, I pop wasabi peas in my mouth one at a time but chew them by the dozen, my nostrils flaring. Hours later, your son lets himself into my apartment. He reeks of the warm, malty human scent of beer being digested. He tells me that dinner was fine, nothing special, you grilled up some veggie burgers. Suddenly, he perks up. Guess what?
I’ve convinced my Mom to meet with you, so the two of you can talk things over face-to-face. Hopefully, we’ll make some progress, he says. He’s beaming, so giddy with hope.
In bed, he snores next to me as my wet cheek marinates in the damp pillow, but I don’t know if I am mourning my shame or boredom or loss or all of the above.
I could lose him. We've only been dating for a few months, but I am cynical enough to know that every relationship reaches a point of disillusionment where some conflict will force its members to stay together or part ways.
When he returns from his bicycle ride nine hours later, I am still in bed. I tell him I understand if this relationship is too much for him. I do not want him to love me at the expense of his own family. I do not want him to resent me.
I don’t want to end this, he replies, sounding hurt.
I mean, me neither, I reply. But I understand if you want to.
I don’t, he says curtly.
He stays quiet as I try to massage the hovering headache out of my temples.
Sorry, I’m just dealing with a lot right now, I remind him.
His acknowledgment is noncommittal enough for me to feel bitter. No one extends any empathy to the immigrant who doesn’t know American culture; the minority who cannot socialize in white spaces; the girlfriend whose affection is misinterpreted as opportunism, her romantic intentions so thoroughly dissected that she can scarcely pick up the tiny scraps to see what they still resemble without lying to herself.
On Friday, I do the same thing as I do every day. At 9 am, I sit at my desk and pop an Advil or two or three. I answer client emails on autopilot. I review the print-ready ads dotted with tiny Chinese characters. I circle typos. I listen to Bruce Springsteen crooning about an America I’ve never lived in. At noon, I skip lunch. At 4 pm, I consider how, when I had graduated summa cum laude two months ago, I had envisioned launching an intellectually engaging career with work that mattered. At 4:03 pm, I remind myself of my alternate life where I do not have work visa sponsorship and am forced to return — I hate the word “deported" — to a smoking, hapless city. At 4:05 pm, I message my supervisor on Slack, asking if there’s anything I can help her out with, please, give me more menial work so I can quell my nervous sense of precariousness and disposability.
I leave the office at 6:30 pm and while waiting for the bus, I eavesdrop on a conversation where a woman is considering quitting her tech job to volunteer at a nonprofit startup. Do it! her friend says encouragingly.
At 8 pm, when your son tells me he will be spending the next day doing a hundred-mile bike ride, I snap, I don’t need you anyway.
That’s not very nice, he replies.
In bed, I pull the blanket over my head, curl up on my side and stay in that fetal position until late morning, long after he leaves.
We walk down Clement Street and buy pork buns the size of fists and flaky egg custard tarts with gooey centers. Back in my apartment, our stomachs full of butter and canola oil, your son sits me down. There’s something we need to talk about, he says.
I feel the air whooshing out of me. It’s my mother, he continues. She wants us to break up.
We learn to tame the terror of adulthood by laughter. Laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. Laughing to hide devouring feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy or shame. Laughing to escape. My giggle is high-pitched and painful.
His confessions pick up speed. She says that because you’re so quiet, you’re probably hiding something. But she never really gave you a chance. I mean, she told me she didn’t really like you after the first time you two met, even though your interaction lasted barely five minutes. It’s just that in America, when you don’t talk, people think you’re being rude. I know you’re just shy and polite or whatever, but, you know, now she thinks you’re unfriendly and anti-family because you don’t want to be her friend. We’ve been having these horrible arguments every time I see her. It’s actually been really fucking annoying.
I’m sorry, he says, when he’s finally out of air. But I think you should know this, especially if we’re going to move forward with this relationship.
To carefully and nimbly navigate a precarious situation, you must contract yourself, first by folding your heart; a visceral self-sacrificing, if you will. As though he suddenly notices my leaking eyes, he puts his arm around me and tells me it’s not my fault, not really, his mother is just in a bad emotional state after her divorce, she’s not actually a bad person, she just doesn’t know you, not yet.
...I don’t know if I am mourning my shame or boredom or loss or all of the above.
The more he comforts me, the more I want him to shut up. We’ll get through this together, he says. It’ll be okay. Don’t cry. Shh. Here, drink some water.
We sit and stare at our nebulous reflections from the dark TV screen. Me, dark-haired and trembling, him, fair and tensed. I don’t say anything, even though I want to scream and ask how I can be both the Sneaky Dragon Lady and the featureless Asian who lacks presence.
You were so loud today, your son says to me as we hop into the Uber. I can’t tell if he’s teasing or being passive-aggressive.
I just don’t have buckets of anecdotes like you do, I say, a little too defensively. And I hate butting into a conversation just to blabber about me, me, me.
His smile drops. Are you saying I’m self-centered?
No, I reply carefully, It’s just a white person thing, I think. I don’t know. I just enjoy listening more and asking questions instead of always trying to dominate the conversation about myself.
Yeah, but you have interesting stories too, he says. You’re the only one in the room who grew up differently.
But nobody cares, I retort.
He grunts, and we look out our respective windows. If I could talk the way I thought — obsessively, incessantly, with desperate hunger, to the point of paralysis — perhaps nobody would mistake my quietness for weakness. But four years of elite American higher education and I am still needing a copy of “Dummy’s Cultural Guide to White Conversations.”
On the radio, Janis Joplin sings: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
The morning I’m supposed to meet you and your son for brunch, I Google casual fall styles for brunch women and do I bring anything first official meeting boyfriend’s parents brunch.
I arrive at the restaurant early and give them your name. I am surprised when the hostess seats me at a table for five, not three. Your son arrives minutes later, luckily also early, and plants a kiss on my cheek. He tells me I look great. I fiddle with my napkin.
Ten minutes after our supposed meeting time, you saunter in with an older white couple. Look who I invited! you announce to your son. I don’t think you’ve seen them since you were 15.
He beams and stands up to hug them, but I can tell that he’s annoyed. Wow, this is unexpected, he says.
You order wine for the table as he updates your family friends on his life events from the last 10 years. The wife talks about how the most exciting thing that’s happened to them is repainting the cream-colored walls in their kitchen with a sunnier shade, her husband chiming in to tell the punchline together. Everyone laughs and laughs. I don’t understand the inside joke, but I giggle anyways. You debate between the frittata and the French toast, the husband and wife split a mushroom scramble and an egg white omelet, and your son orders the ricotta pancakes. The wife gossips about the divorce of the soccer mom who lived down the street where the four of you once lived. The wine is so brilliantly chilled that it sears my throat.
You speak in long, winding sentences, unselfconsciously, with hovering pauses for dramatic effect, confident that no one will interject. Someone asks a question about Al Franken. I have no idea who that is, but the debate is so spirited that I don’t want to reveal my lacuna of knowledge. Your son steals a bite of my Eggs Benedict. You complain about having to drive your son to swim practice at the crack of dawn for a whole decade, to which he complains about you always repeating your stories. Oh the sacrifices mothers have to make, you proclaim dramatically, and the wife says hear, hear, let’s toast to that. I smile politely. The waiter refills my glass. I wonder if anyone can tell that I am on edge with discomfort, conscious of how many (few) words I have spoken, which I can count on one hand. I overcompensate. I laugh a little too loudly. No way! I exclaim when you tell us about a parking dispute, That’s insane. A smile is plastered on my face, like a clown. Vacations. Asia. I perk up.
I just got back from Shanghai, the wife tells the table, It’s so modern, entirely unlike the China we think about. She drops her fork and stretches out her arms as though to signify how big China is.
She’s from Hong Kong! your son offers brightly, nudging me.
Oh, I’ve been to Hong Kong once, back in the 1970s, her husband says, weaving into the conversation without missing a beat. I’d love to go back.
It’s very different now, I reply, surprised by my high, tense tone.
The food, oh my god, it’s incredible, isn’t it? he continues like he doesn’t hear me.
I nod politely as he vividly describes his memories of a city where zipping light from neon signs bounces across towering skyscrapers in a dreamy, cyberpunk landscape where the street level never sees any sunlight and the people never sleep because the people are busy exploring the food Mecca filled with roaring street vendors selling dim sum and braised feet of all kinds on narrow streets where Colonial aesthetic clashes with traditional Chinese visions.
His wife leans in conspiratorially. Did you know that they call America “the beautiful country?” she guffaws. Can you imagine? Our America, beautiful?
I examine the remnants of the hollandaise sauce on my plate, which has cooled to a consistency of congealed goo.
Anyway, you all should visit China sometime, her husband tells the table.
I could have clarified that Hong Kong is different from China, but he seems so enthusiastic that I don’t want to correct him. Instead, I continue nodding, a mute bobblehead.
No thanks, you declare loudly, I’ve got everything I need here.
My cheeks are flushing, heat radiating to my blotchy chest, a constellation of alcohol-induced hives from the Asian glow, which I can never remember whether it’s a good or bad reaction to alcohol.
The wife nods sympathetically. We were flying to Bangkok and had a layover in Hong Kong, but our flight was rerouted because of all the rioters, she says. It’s terrible, how they’re destroying their beautiful city.
I try not to flinch. This is my cue to speak. But I do not want to discuss my feelings of monumental loss with strangers who will never understand. Instead, I sip my wine and try to ignore my phone, buzzing with WhatsApp messages from my mother whose cure for insomnia is watching the news and weeping, soothed by the knowledge that I am far, far away from home.
On one of our first dates, your son meets me by Stow Lake and takes me up a long, well-treaded path to reach the highest point in Golden Gate Park. He points at the rows of pastel houses — “the Sunset”; Sutro Tower, jutting through the fog — “a reliable navigational landmark”; entrancing me with descriptions of his beloved nooks in the city. We listen curiously to each other’s stories of foreign upbringings, adventures and interests while strolling with the fluttering excitement of a new, unnamed relationship towards the northwest part of the park where the all-female herd of bison with old-fashioned names laze. I snap a photo, but in the late afternoon haze, it comes out blurry. I save it anyway.
He kisses the same way he acts, with casual self-assuredness forged from four more years of life experience; a demeanor so unlike that of those who came before: the hedonistic high school boyfriend, insecure college affair, emotionally unavailable fling. My semblance of adulthood is fragile; yet, in his presence, I feel myself blossoming into a new configuration — one older, more worldly, less lonely — I wasn’t aware was possible.
The first time I see you, you’re rummaging in your son’s kitchen as we step out of his bedroom. An empty casserole dish in one hand, you notice me first. Who’s this?
What are you doing here? he asks simultaneously.
You raise an eyebrow at his brusque tone. Just dropping off some Tupperware.
His face reddens with embarrassment. This is my mother, he tells me. He hesitates, then gestures at me. This is my girlfriend.
Siu² (little) sam¹ (heart) means that to get things right, one must shrink and tread carefully. I suddenly become hyperaware of my wrinkled dress and unbrushed teeth.
I didn’t know you have a girlfriend, you reply with a pursed smile as if accepting the inevitability of my presence beyond this lingering Saturday morning.
It’s nice to meet you! I chime in with the bubbliest voice I can muster. I can feel the sourness of my breath, last night’s cabernet sauvignon marinating my molars.
You acknowledge me directly for the first time. It’s nice to meet you too.