In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch. Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English.
“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions." And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.
I’m shaking, trying to hold something inside. The last time I saw them, at the funeral, I had broken down and cried big gulping sobs. They must wonder how someone like me can take my mother’s place. A friend once told me that my mother and I were alike, that we had the same wispy hand gestures, the same girlish laugh and sideways look. When I shyly told my mother this, she seemed insulted and said, "You don’t even know little percent of me! How can you be me?" And she’s right. How can I be my mother at Joy Luck?
My mother took her flesh and put it in the soup. She cooked magic in the ancient tradition to try to cure her mother this one last time. She opened Popo’s mouth, already too tight from trying to keep her spirit in. She fed her this soup, but that night Popo flew away with her illness. Even though I was young, I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain.
I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise. This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing. A daughter can promise to come to dinner, but if she has a headache, if she has a traffic jam, if she wants to watch a favorite movie on TV, she no longer has a promise.
I had no choice, now or later. That was how backward families in the country were. We were always the last to give up stupid old-fashioned customs. In other cities already, a man could choose his own wife, with his parents’ permission of course. But we were cut off from this new type of thought. You never heard if ideas were better in another city, only if they were worse.
All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me. And because I moved so secretly now my daughter does not see me. She sees a list of things to buy, her checkbook out of balance, her ashtray sitting crooked on a straight table. And I want to tell her this: we are lost, she and I, unseen and not seeing, unheard and not hearing, unknown by others
“What is a secret wish?”
“It is what you want but cannot ask,” said Amah.
"Why can’t I ask?"
"This is because…because if you ask it…it is no longer a wish but a selfish desire," said Amah. "Haven’t I taught you – that it is wrong to think of your own needs? A girl can never ask, only listen."
"I don’t believe you. Let me see the book."
"It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me."
“You can’t tell me because you don’t know! You don’t know anything!” And the girl ran outside, jumped on her bicycle, and in her hurry to get away, she fell before she even reached the corner.
I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though neither of us knew it at the time, chess games.
I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me – because I had never seen that face before. I looked at my reflection, blinking so I could see more clearly. The girl staring back at me was angry, powerful. This girl and I were the same. I had new thoughts, willful thoughts, or rather thoughts filled with lots of won’ts. I won’t let her change me, I promised to myself. I won’t be what I’m not.
Maybe I never really gave myself a fair chance. I did pick up the basics pretty quickly, and I might have become a good pianist at that young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns.
“You want me to be someone that I’m not!” I sobbed. “I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be… I wish I wasn’t your daughter. I wish you weren’t my mother,” I shouted. As I said these things I got scared. It felt… as if this awful side of me had surfaced at last... And that’s when I remembered the babies she had lost in China, the ones we never talked about.
“I wish I’d never been born!” I shouted. “I wish I were dead! Like them.”
It was as if I had said the magic words Alakazam!—and her face went blank.
To this day, I believe my mother has the mysterious ability to see things before they happen. She has a Chinese saying for what she knows. Chunwang chihan: if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold. Which means, I suppose, one thing is always the result of another.
That’s what she is. A Horse, born in 1918, destined to be obstinate and frank to the point of tactlessness. She and I make a bad combination, because I’m a Rabbit, born in 1951, supposedly sensitive, with tendencies toward being thin-skinned and skittery at the first sign of criticism.
And my mother loved to show me off, like one of the many trophies she polished. She used to discuss my games as if she had devised the strategies… and a hundred other useless things that had nothing to do with my winning.
“A mother is best. A mother knows what is inside you," she said above the singing voices. "A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong."
Over the years, I learned to choose from the best opinions. Chinese people had Chinese opinions. American people had American opinions. And in almost every case, the American version was much better. It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version. There were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing.
Ted pulled out the divorce papers and stared at them. His x’s were still there, the blanks were still blank. "What do you think you’re doing? Exactly what?" he said.
And the answer, the one that was important above everything else, ran through my body and fell from my lips: "You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away."
The minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, My mother was right. I am becoming Chinese.
"You don’t understand," I protested.
"What I don’t understand?" she said.
And then I whispered, "They’ll think I’m responsible, that she died because I didn’t appreciate her."
And Auntie Lindo looked satisfied and sad at the same time, as if this were true and I had finally realized it.
I look at their faces again and see no trace of my mother in them. Yet they still look familiar. And now I also see what part of me is Chinese. It is so obvious. It is my family. It is in our blood. After all these years, I can finally be let go.