My mother is a remarkable woman. Her story is the quintessential immigrant experience: she came to the States from China at the age of twenty-five with a hundred dollars in her pocket and a debt to her father-in-law, my grandfather, for the one-way plane ticket. She had taught herself English through the radio as a child growing up in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in China, and ended up skipping high school entirely to attend one of the most prestigious colleges in China at the age of 15.
Her first night in America, the land of the free, the land of limitless possibility, she slept in a Greyhound bus station.
In Indiana, she attended grad school, working the night shift at a diner and studying during the day. She loved writing stories, creating art with words, pouring her heart into her prose. Eventually she graduated with a degree in Folklore, surrounded by peers who had life handed them on a silver platter and were looking for the path of least resistance to graduation. She, on the other hand, actually loved folklore, mystified by ancient Chinese poetry and myths from childhood. She wanted to write stories.
But she learned the hard way, as so many of us do, that the real world does not pave a path so easily for those who study humanities at a small, no-name university, especially those who come from, well, nothing. When my father eventually joined her in the United States, she picked up computer programming – to this day, still a notoriously male-dominated field – and forever changed the trajectory of her life.
Fast-forward nineteen years. She now has three kids – two girls and a boy to carry on the family name – and her family lives in an affluent suburb in sunny California. A daughter at Harvard, just like she always wanted. Enough security in our lives to never worry about locking our car doors, to never dream of sleeping anywhere but a comfy bed. The American dream, right? She had pulled herself up by her bootstraps, sacrificing her own hopes and dreams for her children’s. Growing up, I told her stories to my friends proudly, championing her successes both as a minority and a woman. Despite how often we fought, I carried her story with me throughout my life, out of high school and into college.
The other day, she asks me over Skype, “So, where do you think you’ll be settling down after you graduate?”
I don’t know. “It’s too far away to tell.” It’s clockwork. The conversation inevitably drifts in this direction whenever we speak. This time, I joke, “But I do love it here in Germany. Maybe I’ll just stay here after my internship. I really love living by myself, being by myself.”
“But you can’t be alone forever. That’s not a good idea at all. You can have fun for a bit, I guess. You have about, five years, I’d say. Then you have to settle down. Get married, have kids. You know that is what you have to do.”
It was a throwaway comment, the one I made. I wasn’t serious. But suddenly the conversation is veering downhill. I can leave it where it is. But the raging feminist in me can’t help herself – she takes the bait, bites down hard.
“There are other ways for a woman to be happy besides just settling down and having kids. Not everybody has to do it,” I explain matter-of-factly.
“Of course there are a lot of ways to be happy. But there is only one right way, to do what is your God-given duty in your life. Your body is made to bear children.”
Suddenly she is espousing those traditional Chinese ideals to me. I thought she had come here to escape them.
“How can you say that? How can you tell me that there is only one correct way, one -”
She cuts me off: “Just look at Connie Chung. She spent so many years getting famous, working for her job, flying all over the world. When she turned 45, she finally decided that she wanted to settle down, so she got married, and what do you know, the doctor tells her she can’t have kids anymore.”
“But Connie Chung has a kid.”
“She adopted a child. It’s different.”
A deafening silence on my end.
“Trust me, you don’t want to have that happen to you. The greatest honor a woman has in her life is to bear a child, and raise him in a righteous manner. But it’s too early anyways.” She swiftly changes course, wrapping up the conversation brusquely. “You’re doing well otherwise? Do you need anything from us?”
I know I am not unreasonable. I know that my arguments are solid, the ones I know by heart from arguing this over and over with so many people – staunch misogynists, cynical anti-feminists, the occasional devil’s advocate. I do not need to bully others into a corner to assert my position; I know how to keep cool in the face of stubborn intractability. There’s no use getting huffy over someone who will not listen.
But then why do I cry for so long after this conversation?
It runs deeper than the fact that I cannot change her mind. It is the knowledge that the woman who, for so long, represented to me the immense capabilities of woman beyond the traditional expectations, who stood as a beacon of a woman of ability and power in a man’s world, will tell me for the rest of my life that there is only one correct way to derive meaning from it.
I am at once immensely proud and incredibly ashamed of her. I seek independence from her and am forever tied to her – any success I have, I owe to her sacrifices. No matter what I do, a part of me will always feel indebted to her. But maybe at some point, I also have to take down the hero from the pedestal, to recognize that I can’t expect people to always play the role I wanted them to play in my life.
“I love you.”
I don’t doubt those words. That’s what makes it hard.
“I love you too.”
We hang up. These are all small battles, ones I confidently fight. But even in my self-assuredness, I still weep.