When I was seven years old and still young enough to see my parents as infallible, my mother told me something I still remember today.
“Just because somebody didn’t come to America for graduate school,” she said. “does not mean you should respect them any less.”
It was 1995 and my parents and I were in our trusty, third-hand Honda Civic headed to the monthly Chinese grad student potluck. I remember there were no stars that winter night in Chicago, and it was so cold that a layer of ice two feet thick covered the placid waters of Lake Michigan. Our car only had heat some of the time, and unevenly when it did, so that night we three were bundled up to our eyes. I shared the backseat with a platter of my parents’ Shanghai-style spring rolls and a cake from the ice cream store my mother worked at. The fluorescent windows of empty office buildings illuminated piles of gray slush on the side of the road. At red lights, my parents held hands over the center console cup holders, which were perpetually filled with loose change.
“The auntie we’re going to see tonight,” my mother continued, “didn’t even go to college! But don’t make her feel self-conscious about it.”
Dad winked at me through the rearview mirror and I giggled.
I called all their Chinese friends “Auntie” and “Uncle” so that my parents would appear to be responsible Chinese parents who taught their kid good manners. In truth, I – scandalously – referred to their friends by their first names when the three of us gossiped together over dinner. My parents had only met these people two years ago when we moved from Shanghai so Dad can get his MA in Computer Science. Mom, in the meantime, worked at the neighborhood Baskin Robbins to supplement Dad’s TA stipend. We lived in a mouse-infested, drafty apartment with a leaky radiator. It had only one tiny bedroom, but the three of us found plenty of space for our epic hide-and-seek games and the pillow forts we built with third- and fourth-hand furniture donated by the International Students Association. After dinner, we took walks along the lake. On weekends there were parties with the other grad students and road trips to dusty Midwest tourist traps. It was the happiest time of my life.
“It doesn’t matter that this auntie – and you better remember to call her Auntie – came to America by marrying Uncle Sui instead of on a student visa like us,” Mom said.
“We won’t judge her for that,” Dad added.
“No, we won’t,” said my mother. “That’s not Christian.”
“People make their own life decisions. They do the best they can with what they’ve got.”
“Do you understand?”
Even then, I knew that grad school was an inevitable part of my future — like marriage or hereditary near-sightedness — but it was still an abstract concept. However, my parents’ constant attempts to balance their snobbery with their better natures was practically a family pastime.
“I understand!” I piped up.
“You’re so enthusiastic, little dumpling,” said Mom. “But I know you don’t understand a word.”
That night’s dinner was in honor of Uncle Sui — a small, shy man from Hunan who wore Coke-bottle glasses. He always brought me treats and liked to toss me in the air while I squealed. Uncle Sui was completing his PhD in Computer Science and had already secured a job that would sponsor his green card. With this, he had gone back to China for a young bride.
She stood up when we entered — Mom carrying the cake, Dad carrying the spring rolls, me carrying my books — and I could see she was at least a foot taller than Uncle Sui, maybe even taller than all the other uncles there. She was built like a house, solid and wide. But she seemed to fold herself into as small a space as possible. Her hands clutched each other in her lap. Her broad shoulders were hunched over her large chest. She glanced shyly at Uncle Sui as he talked excitedly about a McMansion in the suburbs someday, and a family. Her Mandarin — spoken in a soft, childlike voice — was thick with a rural Northern accent. Mom liked her. Dad, as he said later in the car ride back, didn’t like to judge, but she was a bit tall, don’t you think?
“Maybe he likes tall women,” said Mom. “He had his pick when he went back with that green card. I heard the whole neighborhood showed up to introduce him to their sisters and cousins. He must’ve chosen her for a reason.”
“He knows an uneducated woman is more obedient,” said Dad.
Mom didn’t say anything to that.
My parents married young compared to the other ambitious grad-students from China. Theirs was a legendary romance with all the tropes: teenage love, disapproving parents, and finally, the adventure together to a new land with the optimism that only twenty-eight year olds have.
This also meant I was the only child in a community of mainly single expats. At these potluck dinners, I was fawned over, fed lots of strange food, and then forgotten. I loved those dinners though – I could stay up as late as I wanted reading my fantasy novels in a pile of coats while my parents and their friends laughed over beer and cards. Around midnight, after I had long fallen asleep, Dad would carry me to the car and bundle me in. I would wake up in my little bed – a second-hand mattress on the floor – wrapped in the pink flowery comforter my grandma back in China had made for me.
These students were usually the first in their families to go to college, an unimaginable luxury merely a decade before. And they were usually the first in their families to leave China. It was a shock to find yourself in a place where streets were empty in the middle of the day, strangers smiled at you just for sharing the sidewalk, and slabs of beef that could feed a whole family for a week were plopped down in front of you as a single serving — with butter. That smell of butter and grease made one uncle leave a steak dinner with his thesis advisor to dry heave on the sidewalk. He told us all about it at the next potluck, and students from the frozen steppes of Manchuria to the tropical coastlines of Guangxi all agreed that Americans eat too much beef.
Most of them were old enough to remember the last famine back in 1962. They remember their younger brothers and sisters lying on the floor with sunken eyes, breathing in shallow gasps, and later the small bodies wrapped in rags and left for the stray dogs because nobody had the strength to dig a grave. These stories haunted even my parents, who were born in Shanghai and so missed the worst of the famine.
“When I was young, my birthday was the only time I could have a whole egg to myself,” Mom would say, as she put two fried eggs on my plate every morning.
“That’s because your family was rich,” Dad would reply. “The three kids in my family would share one egg at New Year’s.”
Shortly after we had arrived in Chicago two years ago, word got around that Mom had been a doctor in China. Other Chinese students quickly started showing up at our door. Usually they just had indigestion from the American food. Once, an uncle found a spider in his ear. A few times it was STDs they didn’t want their girlfriends or boyfriends to know about. And because Mom also had a disarming smile, and beautiful, large, understanding eyes, she learned all their secrets.
That is how she found the source of the STDs — a good-looking Electrical Engineering student from Tianjin my parents nicknamed “Dandelion” for how quickly he “sowed his seeds.” His kids are now in grad school.
A Computer Science student from Beijing survived a car crash on an icy corner of Sheridan Road. My parents fundraised for his hospital bills and his wife’s funeral. He is now an executive at Microsoft and a board member at his country club.
A Mechanical Engineering student from Shanghai once showed up at our door three weeks pregnant. Her husband had left her for another grad student a year ago, so Mom went with her to get the abortion. She is now a soccer mom and a Trump supporter.
A Physics student from Harbin told Mom about her cancer diagnosis. Mom planned her wedding when she was in chemo. When she went into hospice care, my parents worked with the embassy to let her parents come see her.
On weekends, we drove to a Taiwanese church in one of the richest suburbs in the Midwest. We had a casual relationship with this new American religion, but my parents wanted to try everything American. The Taiwanese spoke Mandarin, unlike the Cantonese congregants in the Chinatown churches. They were also better dressed, which my parents cared about – most were from affluent, well-educated families back on the island. So every Sunday, my parents took out their best clothes from Shanghai: polyester dress shirts from the special “Western” clothing store on Nanjing Road and colorful blazers with big shoulder pads that Mom made herself based on magazines smuggled from Hong Kong. They never mentioned that my grandparents were the proletariat revolutionaries who had helped exile our church friends to their island forty years ago. In America, all was forgotten — which is practically the same as forgiven.
One of these days, my mother said, she wanted a big house like these Taiwanese women in their furs and Mercedes. I would go to a better college than their kids, she assured me – and I did – and she wanted a McMansion like they had. This was her American Dream.
I remember the night the phone rang after I had already gone to bed. I woke up to my parents talking in hushed voices in the kitchen. Soon, Mom came over to my little bed and stroked my cheek with cold fingers.
“Little dumpling, are you awake?”
I pulled the flowery comforter over my head.
“Little dumpling,” she said. “Papa and I have to go to the hospital and we can’t leave you alone at home. You can sleep in the car, okay?”
She gently pulled on my socks and shoes and wrapped me in one of her nice coats from Shanghai. The coat was bright red wool with a cold silk lining and smelled faintly of mothballs. The color may be gaudy, but it had cost her a month’s salary, she told me once. She didn’t want anyone in America thinking she was a poor Chinese immigrant. Dad carried me — still half-asleep — to our third-hand Honda Civic. We drove slowly and in silence through the icy streets.
I woke to the harsh lights of Cook County Hospital. We walked three abreast, my hands in theirs, through the automatic doors. As soon as we entered the emergency room, we saw Uncle Sui’s wife. Her shoulders were hunched as if she was trying to take up as little space as possible, but she still towered over the two policemen on either side of her. Her clutched hands trembled
“I’ll go talk to them,” said Mom. She let go of my hand and approached the policemen with her disarming smile.
“Hello,” she said, in English. “I am here to translate. I am a friend.” She put an arm around Uncle Sui’s wife, who burst into tears.
“Let’s go over there,” said Dad. He led me to the waiting area across the room and sat down on the cleanest looking chair. I climbed into his lap and yawned. He wrapped his arms around me.
“Try and get some sleep,” he said. “You still have school tomorrow.”
“Where is Uncle Sui?” I asked, burying my face in his chest to block out the fluorescent lights.
“Don’t worry about that,” said Dad. He kept his eyes on Mom and the policemen.
I must have fallen asleep again, because I woke up in the backseat as we were driving away from the hospital. Uncle Sui’s wife was sitting beside me. She leaned her head against the cold window and watched the streetlights passing by. Once or twice, she brought her hands up to her face and wiped at her eyes. When we dropped her off, she thanked my mother in her childlike voice, with that Northern accent. We watched her walk away through the dirty gray snow and enter their dark apartment building.
“The neighbors called the cops,” Mom whispered to Dad, as we drove away. “Domestic disturbance. They had a fight and he hit her.”
“If he hit her, how come he ended up in the ER?”
“She hit him back, of course. Shattered his glasses.”
“Shit. You don’t mess with Northern women. Probably has some Mongol blood in her. Look at how tall she is!”
“The doctors said he almost lost his eye. They had to give him thirteen stitches.”
“It’s okay, she’s asleep.”
I quickly closed my eyes and leaned my head back.
“No, she’s not. She’s only pretending.”
I opened an eye and saw Dad wink at me through the rearview mirror.
“Don’t listen to us, okay?” he said. “Don’t worry about anything.”
We drove in silence for a long time. Then my father said quietly, “At that dinner party, I told him to get her pregnant as soon as he can. A wife like that — someone he barely knew — you don’t know if she might run off.”
Mom sighed. “And where is she going to run off to? She doesn’t have family here. She doesn’t have money. She doesn’t even speak English. If they were in China, her brothers or male cousins could beat him up. But here, we are her only friends.”
“What did you tell her?” asked my father.
“I told her exactly that. I said, Be realistic. What are you going to do? Are you going to go back to China? Find another husband? You have no education, no money. And you’ll be a divorced woman. Here, you have a husband with a good job and a green card. No marriage is perfect. At least he will think twice about hitting you again.”
“Don’t mess with Northern women.”
“I told her to have a child soon, too. A child will give her something to live for.”
We drove in silence for a while longer, but then Dad must have seen my face in the mirror because he suddenly said, “People do the best they can with what they’ve got, little dumpling. Not everyone can be as lucky as you.”
“Don’t worry, little dumpling,” Mom added. “This is America! Anything is possible. Her children will go to college someday. Maybe even to grad school with you.”
She smiled at me in the rearview mirror.
“Don’t tell anyone about tonight, of course,” she added.
I never found out what happened to them. Uncle Sui got offered an even better paying job with a startup in California, and he moved out there with his now pregnant wife. Theirs became one of the stories my parents didn’t talk about –
Like the Uncle who graduated top of his class from Beijing University, and sold vegetables out of his car in our church parking lot. His employer hadn’t filled out his paperwork as promised. By the time he found out, his visa had already expired. I asked my parents why he didn’t just go back to China with his fancy American degree. They told me not to worry about that. I realized later he had been one of the students protesting in Beijing the summer of 1989.
Then there was the Uncle who came home one day to find his fiancee had moved out of their apartment without warning. She had found someone with a green card to marry instead. I asked my parents if she loved him. They told me not to worry about that.
There was the son who did go to grad school, at an Ivy League no less. He hasn’t spoken to his parents in years.
There was my father, a former child prodigy, sleeping with younger and younger women as he got older and older.
If you want to tell our stories, my mother said, you must end with something hopeful, something happy – an American Ending. Like how our children go to grad school and become doctors. How the three of us used to live in a tiny mouse-infested apartment and slept on the floor and now we sleep in separate McMansions on overpriced, organic memory foam mattresses. That is how you end our stories, she said. Or else what was the point? What is the point of even remembering?
But I remember that night: Our little family in our little third-hand car, connected by the first of many family secrets. I remember my mom’s red coat with the cold silk lining and falling asleep to the sound of my parents whispering. I remember their hands reaching for each other at the red lights. By the time we arrived at our apartment, the sun was already rising over Lake Michigan. I remember the ice on the water had shattered, and its million jagged shards glittered beautifully in the cold light.