Who would’ve thought that biting into a char siu bao would open a floodgate of tears? Definitely not my unsuspecting Japanese husband and American-Chinese-Japanese son. Yesterday evening after my family started eating the baos we had bought at the Asian grocer I started sniffling, then whimpering, then crying. At first Max and Fred thought this was amusing. “Maybe you’re PMSing,” Max said in all sincerity (because I really do get that way), and Fred started laughing, not knowing (I don’t think) what Max meant but thinking it sounded pretty funny and accurate. Then Fred turned to his dad and whispered, “Mommy is crying like a cry baby!” Ha ha ha ha ha!
But my crying got stronger, and soon the two of them just sat there and stared at me, dumbfounded.
Those puffy pillow breads, once such a symbol of embarrassment and identity confusion for me, suddenly brought back images of my mother walking through Chinatown with her plastic hot pink grocery bags (another symbol of embarrassment). The memory was unexpected, jolting and familiar all at once. Like the way you smell something in the air and realize the last time you smelled that scent you were sitting in your late grandmother’s livingroom. It was the kind of familiarity that reminds you of how far you have gone and how long it has been since you’ve paid a visit.
Earlier that morning I had taken Fred to the park. There is a growing Chinese community here – graduate students and newly minted university faculty who have since petitioned to have their families immigrate to the U.S. “There are alot of Chinese families here today,” I thought outloud. In response Fred said, “Mommy, I think we are the only Japanese here.” And that is when I realized that my son isn’t even really aware of his Chinese heritage.
I’ve spent a good many years pushing the “past” in me away, even adopting an additional culture to unconsciously replace the Chinese. I worry about how Fred will keep up his Japanese and harrass his dad to keep reading to him in Japanese. In the meantime I readily decline my mother’s invitations to return home for Chinese New Year celebrations and politely explain that adding Chinese to Fred’s linguistic plate may be too much for now.
As a first generation Chinese-American I grew up with a heavy dose of Chinese. And I suppose those early images are the stickiest. The ear-splitting decibel levels at which so many Chinese talk. The way the male restaurant workers spat their morning phlegm onto the sidewalks as if they were their public sinks. The way that middle-aged women pushed and hollered to get their way. The way that some acquaintances lied on their taxes so their kids could get a free ride through college. The way I just never grew up in the majority. Maybe my view was limited and my judgment clouded, and I’ve somehow chosen to remember the bad versus the good. But I didn’t grow up feeling proud to be Chinese.
Now it’s my Japanese husband and mixed-heritage son who are bringing me back. It was Max’s idea to shop at the Chinese grocer, and it’s Fred who’s so interested in visiting the Great Wall and in learning Mandarin. He studies through DVDs and, while he uses the same fourteen words over and over, his accent and use of tones are right on. Coming from him, Chinese sounds beautiful…beautiful in a way I didn’t remember. So, too, on this trip back, do the char siu baos taste better than ever, and the image of my mother lugging bags of groceries through Chinatown has resurfaced as that of a courageous woman braving an unfamiliar country with two toddlers, hoping to pass onto them what she had to leave forever behind.