a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
for my 母亲, mǔ qīn, meaning mother
Sitting before the bathroom mirror, you once told me that blood is like memory. The veins, you said, tether hindsight from one generation to another, a thread of instructional chapters meant for nothing but motherhood. My grievances are yours to relive, you explained. I hope you only see them through me, in passing.
I listened without a sound, waiting for more. You remained quiet even as I knifed through strands of your salt-and-pepper hair, nettling the roots with gel before the razor sheared away the rest. Vulnerability had never been part of your two-tongued vernacular, daughterhood a subject we rarely discussed. In your silence, I learned to despise our thinning blood bonds. Snipsnipsnip. You held my gaze through the glare of the mirror. Snipsnipsnip.
Stumbling through the red-paved roads of Tsinghua University, I squeeze your letter tighter between my fingers. The humidity causes the pages to wrinkle, my eyes to blur. In the shimmering heat, I see your afterimage haunting these streets—or am I only witnessing the ghost of your youth, sewn into my cornea through your half of my biology? Two steps away, thin girls twirl in summer skirts, their self-assurance so whole and tangible that I can’t help but wonder if you had once walked among them, if I would have done the same. I ask myself if I would want to and unintentionally answer Yes, please in the wrong tongue, English still threatening to unravel the embroidery of our shared memory.
I haven’t been to Beijing since you died. Your letter is my last thread to this Forbidden City, the edges of it unfamiliar in my mouth, under my tongue. The paper in my hands is a special kind of irony, branded bitter by my inability to read it through. I’ll admit, I’ve avoided this journey out of sheer guilt: Back then, I doubted what you could know of bloodlines when ours had nearly ended with you.
You were born the first and only child of Grandmother Wei. Years later, she died of the same cancer that would kill you, too. The hospital that held your day-old self groaned under the weight of screaming babies, the sound sharp enough to sever families. Infants left untethered were thrown to the storm—shelters no one visited because souvenirs don’t sell in the slums.
Your father brought you home in a bundle of red silk, the threads loose and fraying but the best he could afford. Everything is expensive in the city, but life and labor come cheap. Maybe that’s why he leaves; maybe that’s why Grandmother Wei tells you, at five years old, to choose cremation—you won’t need to cut the cost of a coffin out of her meager will.
Your letter is addressed to a wealthy district. The bustling streets remind me of the tiny room in which I was born, three hallways and thirteen years away from the hospital ward you died in. I glance at the paper, its dimensions morphing into a mirage of my birth certificate. Both prints are red and mocking, letters embossed in metallic vermillion. I don’t recognize a word, can’t bend my tongue around your syllables. Even my middle name, Jingsui, is unrecognizable in your handwriting—context you’ve never given me, a story forgone with time. I’ve only read the anglicized version, straddled by the parentheses of Dad’s American surname and your word of choice, Rein—as in, to restrain; as in, to guide.
I don’t remember much of my childhood. Everything I can recall has been retold to me, your words topstitched along the border of my memory. What I do remember: you braiding my hair every morning before school, fingers tight and incessant against my roots. (Be a good girl. Don’t get in trouble.) What I do remember: growing tired of your fussing, eager to put the playground between us. What I do remember: asking about the unfamiliar lilt to my middle name, begging for the history behind it, a meaning to cling to. Anything to justify the teasing at school after Joe McEnroe glimpsed the letters from a teacher’s roll call. The split-second slip of your brow is forever imprinted in my memory.
“Don’t be silly. It’s nothing important.”
Maybe those that follow will try to unravel our lingering sense of shame. I will tell them, using your letter as proof, that some knots are tied so tight and breathless that not even knives are sharp enough to sever.
As you grow up, you realize your city shines brightly for everyone but you. The lush innocence of the 80s shifts beneath your feet—tumultuous times. Behind the glittering curtain of high-rise buildings, you claw your way out of the slums, teach yourself to speak proper Mandarin. Your neighbors ask why you struggle for worthless luxuries. You respond, How can you call something worthless without getting to know it first? In high school, the government guarantees your district a seventy-point increase on the gaokao in order to maintain the façade of a meritocracy. You don’t want it. Spite sharpens your vision, makes machinery of your body. Later, you would call it divine reckoning--some gain discipline out of despair; others unravel under pressure. You certainly had more faith in God than you did in the government, and your conviction had brought you all the way to Tsinghua.
At the time, I had thought you were calling me lazy in the way American mothers would never. In hindsight, your eyes—already duller by then—looked satisfied, as if you were proud that your daughter had never felt the knife of desperation.
Guiltily, I wanted to inherit your history. As I pass through Beijing’s damp alleyways, the fetid air clogs my lungs, making meat of my body. The thought is ridiculous now. Back then, the challenges of your memory seemed favorable in comparison to the kids back home. At least, I thought, the stigma against poverty could be unraveled through a simple display of talent. The seams of prejudice, of elementary schoolers screaming chink as if my appearance were a flaw in armor, were not so easily disentangled. These families were rooted so deep within the Georgian cotton fields that immigration, to them, was synonymous with invasion.
I push through desperate vendors and their carts of fried goods, realizing that your conviction and their anger are mirror images. The revelation slides over me like a second skin: Which person is willing to surrender their beliefs, their only anchor? Your obstinance cemented you among the brightest minds of your generation. I had thought you perfect, the Chinese recreation of the American Dream. Why, then, had you crossed the sea?
I once asked you what to do. “How do I tell them that you’re my mother? How do I make them accept that I’m Chinese?”
You blinked, made me two-dimensional in your bitter brown eyes. On your computer screen, unfinished lines of code blinked back at me. “What do you mean? You’re American.” American. You made it sound like I had Dad’s easy grace, his looks rendering him negligible among the sunburned necks of farmers. He was rarely ever home these days, his job at The Washington Post swallowing all of my waking hours. When I finally caught him alone, just before he was assigned to fly out to Shanghai, I asked him what he’d do. Casually. Vague enough so as to hide any intent. How do you deal with people?
He furrowed his brow, a common trait amongst journalists trying to cram a response into as few words as possible. Sparing me a glance over his desk, he said, Usually, the problems you have with others stem from how you think about yourself. Somewhere in the distance, the telephone rang. Speak your truth to someone. Rrrrring. Maybe write it out? I once told your mom the same thing. Rrrrrrring. Look, I gotta catch this flight, but let’s circle back to this when I get home—alright, kiddo?
Alright. All I had for writing utensils were red ballpoint pens. I wonder if you used the same to write your letter, the last letter. As Dad shouted you a goodbye from the picket fence, I uncapped the pen closest to me and hesitated, unsure of what to say, of how to say it. The ink flowed seamlessly as I scribbled memories, all the while aching to know your own.
Dad met you in April of 1989. You said you didn’t notice him until the fourth of that June. Worldwide, the date is called a massacre. You’ve never uttered a word about it, sealed your lips even tighter when I mentioned—in passing—that we were learning about it in school. Maybe that had been the first sign.
I know very little about what happened, only that you were there. Dad interviewed you for a feature story, one that propelled his career and love life enough to result in me. You had explicitly forbidden me from reading the article, a rule I have yet to breach. When the diagnosis was verified, it occurred to me that freedom from your boundaries, your blood, wasn’t quite freedom at all. Dad flew home for six months, placing his job on indefinite hold. After the initial panic—both of us scrambling to fit words into a language that had suddenly grown too small—you told us over the phone, it’s alright, we’ll be okay. As if you weren’t the one dying. As if we weren’t the ones being untethered, unmoored, unraveled.
The apartment complex looms over me, twelve stories tall. Although the front door is unmanned, and I don’t have to be buzzed in, cold sweat congeals in the ridges of my palms. This type of wealth is entirely unfamiliar to me, its regality soft and insidious. I stumble into the elevator, mimic the man in front of me and feed ten yuan into a yellow plastic kiosk. The walls press against me, trying to erase a blemish in this luxurious tapestry.
When the doors open, the twelfth floor feels ten times colder than the first. Squaring my shoulders, I journey down the hallway. A decade seems to have passed before I reach the plaque reading 1217. My fingers tremble as I ring the doorbell.
A woman unlatches the door, greets me with a polite smile. Her lips move; she says something I can barely make out. Her face transfixes me, the sharpness of it strange against her features—she must be at least sixty, but her round eyes are bright.
My silence hangs in the air, unbearable. I see you beyond the angle of the door, your ghost sitting at this woman’s dinner table. A young girl peeks from behind a bowl of rice, no doubt wondering what her mother is doing. I fight the urge to cry. “My name is… Jingsui. My mother wanted you to have this.”
I raise my right arm, let your letter catch the hallway’s white light. The woman’s gaze darts from my hand to my eyes, and she answers in crisp English, “Your mother? Do I…” The words melt on her tongue. She stares at the back of the envelope, absorbing the neat stitch of your words. When her hands fold back the crease and pull out its innards, I inhale, needles pricking my stomach.
“Oh,” she says, after an eternity has passed. Her door opens wider, a mouth meant to swallow. “Well. I always told your mother that she would regret keeping so many secrets. Please, come in and have something to eat.”
The woman’s name is Zhao Mingxia. Apparently, she had been your closest confidant in college. I call her Zhao a-yi, conjuring the memory of courtesy from somewhere deep within. I thought I had forgotten how to shape honorifics, but maybe you had been right all along. Threads of blood, your grievances woven through me.
“Your mother moved to America as soon as she graduated.” She sets a plate of dried cuttlefish on the table. Her daughter has disappeared into one of the bedrooms. “I always… well, I wasn’t surprised. Many ideologies changed after Tiananmen. We call it liùsì shìjiàn, June fourth. No one forgets. Certainly not those who were there.”
I hear the echo of Dad asking questions and find my lips already molding words. “Why did you go?”
She sits across from me and worries a cup of jasmine tea with her pruning fingers. “Your father asked me the same thing. He never put my answers in his article. Have you read it yet? How your mother managed to satisfy his standards, I don’t know. I think she lied, that day. Do you understand? Your mother was special because her pride was enormous but so was her shame.”
No, I don’t understand. “She told me not to read the article.” I pause. “But if she was patriotic enough to attend hunger strikes for months, why would she leave Beijing at all?” Zhao a-yi sighs, takes a deep breath and sips her scalding tea. The wrinkles in her brow are more pronounced when she sets the cup down. “What do you Americans call it? The million-dollar question? Yes, that’s right. One of our friends died that day, you know. Your mother was quite close to him. I think… she might have thought she was going to die. Heartbreak or gunfire, I’m not sure. I suppose this is my regret to hold on to, that I will never know. You still have a chance. Visit the guangchang sometime.”
We decide on tomorrow. She’ll take me to the gates; we’ll drop by a few of your old favorite restaurants.
When I leave her apartment, your ghost feels lighter.
I stand alone before the crimson gates.
Your presence is gone. Maybe you don’t want to revisit this place, the home you never shared with me. Overhead, the sky is strangely clear and blue, devoid of the pollution and humidity that had plagued my thoughts for the last week.
Bodies litter the square, grouped together for tours and sightseeing. It’s strange. I remember seeing Mao Zedong’s face printed in my World History textbook, but seeing his portrait in the flesh doesn’t seem any more real. If anything, the moment is purest when I close my eyes, taking in the sound, letting it echo in the tear between my ribs.
Somewhere within me, my heart measures the tautness of the chords. From the back of my mind, your memories hum like live-wire, the sensation slick with want. My eyes open; I see the square through blood-red tones. Jingsui, you say in the language I don’t know—yet. I had brought you here to test the strength of those threads, of your blood. I think I’ll come away with a compromise. Pride kept you apart; shame took you away. I hold the threads to the name you gave me, trace stitches that hold us together, even in death, proud and ashamed all at once: Jingsui. Jingsui, Jingsui.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.