Marriage Dance

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My smile was radiant. His was dazzling. It was my day. Our day. Our wedding day. Thirteen years ago, today, we tied the knot: a Chinese woman and a Caucasian man. No language barrier. No cultural inhibition. Two individuals, overcome with joy, love and passion, greeted each other at the altar. Eyes met. Tears welled up. The intense emotion we felt towards each other.

Thirteen years later, it seems like yesterday. Gone with the It-can-make-you-blush romance. Come along with the I-know-what-you-need/How-you-feel rapport. Perhaps we were destined to meet. As a Chinese saying goes, we are connected by an invisible red thread. The thread can be tightened or tangled, but will never be broken.

But we could have chosen other mates. Perhaps someone of the same culture, the same skin color, or the same religion. Perhaps someone richer, younger, or more attractive. What makes us click then? Curiosity? Shared interests? Love at first sight? Deep connections? Willingness to open up to each other? Yes. All of them, and a lot more.

If I were to come up with a few qualities in my husband that I am most attracted to, I would list the following:

His intelligence. Vast and deep. From politics, history, art, literature, to science, engineering, architecture, and everyday life. He can carry a conversation on any topic. Fact based. Well informed. Witty and nonjudgmental. He has the vision and wisdom of a global thinker. He is the Wikipedia of our family.

His passion for life. Genuine and earnest. In his words, “the fun in life is what makes all worthwhile.” He loves what he does and does it well. He enjoys travel. He is into nature. He lives in the present. He appreciates every day. Fatherhood gives him the opportunity to share and cultivate the same sense of adventure and fun-loving spirit in our 12-year-old son. We travel together as a family to see the world and to experience life. He embodies “living life to the fullest.”

His sense of humor. Witty and wry. He is funny and fun. His self-deprecating jokes often show the humble side of him. I laugh at them. A lot. But most importantly, he never ceases to amaze me with his ability to laugh in good times and bad. It would be easy for me to get frustrated and distracted by small bumps and hiccups in our daily lives, but he sets life priorities, and rolls with the punches. He is a beacon of light, an ultimate optimist.

Last but not least, his humanity. Compassionate and inspiring. It manifests in the lives he touches and the people he loves. His colleagues. His friends. His family. He takes young people under his wing, mentoring them with passion and sincerity. He cares about his elderly mother. Never missed a single time talking to her on Sunday evenings. His loving relationship with our son is what I am most proud of. Deeply involved in every aspect of our son’s life, he teaches him not only life skills, but also life values and lessons, big or small. Largely because of this, our son has grown into a kind, loving and empathetic gentle soul on his own terms.

I am proud of my husband. I also feel good for myself. I am lucky to have found the right man.

But finding the right one is only half of the equation in a marriage; learning to live together as one is the other half. It is much harder.

We all come into our relationships with our own baggage; perhaps a failed courtship in the past, the idiosyncrasies of our upbringing, the differences in our beliefs, our rituals, or our habits. We are who we are- weird, flawed, and self-centered, each in our own way.

There is a cynical line about marriage in a hugely popular, Chinese social-satire novel called Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu. I can recite that line by heart: “Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.”

Truth be told, after 13 years, we can be not so kind to each other at times. We are both head-strong, stubborn, and particular in our own way. We’ve got shares of our fights, sometimes each unyielding to the other with fury and frustration.

With two careers and a family to juggle constantly, we are tempted to wonder if our lives would be simpler, easier, but not necessarily happier, if we were still single. After all, grass always seems mysteriously greener on the other side.

But we haven’t given up. We haven’t “consciously uncoupled” ourselves. We still choose each other. For thirteen years.

What makes us stay together then? Money? Our house? Our son? Our commitment? Yes- all of these tangible and practical considerations. But more importantly, it’s our unshaken love, friendship, respect, and shared values that keeps us united.

It has to do with acceptance. Appreciating each other’s strengths. Accepting each other’s flaws. Since the day we met at the altar of marriage, we have accepted ourselves as the best possible mates for each other; we have accepted our marriage as the best possible union for us. With this conviction in mind, the myth that “Grass is always greener on the other side” will always be, well, a myth.

It has to do with compromise. I am a firm believer in shared responsibilities in marriage. But this does not equate to 50/50 division of labor. With a more time-demanding job he has, I take up the lion’s share of our household chores. He appreciates my endeavor and always puts forth his best effort to support me. His rock solid love for me and our son makes all my sacrifice worthwhile.

It has to do with forgiveness. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes. If you believe love is in the eyes of the beholder, you should also believe love is patient, kind and deliberate. Thirteen years of marriage. We both have made many mistakes, big or small. But time again, we have forgiven each other’s mistakes. Shared reciprocity.

Marriage is a dance. It requires partnership, with each taking turns and supporting the other. Sometimes it is waltz, smooth and joyful; other times it is tango, passionate and sensual; still others, it is cha-cha, lighthearted and fun.

Marriage is a shared journey. We accept and appreciate who we are. We inspire and encourage each other to be better. We laugh and cheer each other on in good times and bad.

To me my husband is the one whom I can always count on. From here to eternity.

Happy Anniversary!

 

Summer Camp through the Eyes of a Boy

This summer, my 11-year-old boy went on a sleep away camp for the first time. This blog is our first writing collaboration in which he narrated to me his experiences at the camp, and I simply put his words down on paper. The exercise has proved to be a fun and exciting experience for me too because I get to access to some of my son’s private thoughts in dealing with his homesickness, gaining self-confidence and thriving at camp on his own terms. Where relevant, I have also included, with his permission, some of the photos he took at the camp. Hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I do. 

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The Drop-Off Day

When my mom and dad first told me that I would be going on a 3-week sleep away camp, I thought I would never survive. As the days before the camp drew nearer and nearer, I began to worry, but at the same time I felt excited because they told me this was one of the best sleep away camps they knew. A friend of my dad’s recommended it to us because his kids all loved there. Earlier this year, my parents invited the camp director to our house. He looked like a very nice guy. He showed us a slide show of the camp in previous years. Watching the slide show made me feel more interested in going but I still couldn’t shake off the fact that I would leave our home for 3 weeks.

In the morning of the day when camp started, I couldn’t help but feeling sad even though I knew the camp was going to be fun. My parents and I drove for 5 hours up to the camp site. Those 5 hours were probably some of the worst hours I had ever had. I couldn’t imagine what I would be like during the next 3 weeks when I was so far from home. I had already missed my pet bunny Ollie.

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When I arrived at the camp, my parents stayed for a short while to take a small tour to see what the camp was like. Then they walked back to the car. Standing there alone and watching them walk up the dirt path and disappear behind the trees was probably the hardest thing for me. I walked down to our cabin with small tears in my eyes. I was sad to see them leave!

Our Daily Routine at Camp

My first day at camp was tough! My mom and dad had just left me the previous night and I was all alone. Not knowing what to do, I followed other campers by watching them and wondered when I would finally catch on. Things eased up a bit on the second day. I started to get the feel of what it felt like being on my own and getting to know other kids. Things were not all bad.

IMG_3381I shared a cabin with 4 other campers (2 were new) and 1 camp counselor. All our cabins were named after the 46 Adirondack mountain peaks. Ours had a cool name; it was called Skylight. There was no electricity in our cabins. We shared 3 shower stalls and 2 bathrooms in a cabin about 20 yards away. If I wanted to go to the bathroom at night, I had to use the flashlight I brought with me from home. It freaked me out a bit at first, but I got used to it soon.

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At camp, we woke up to the sound of the bell ringing at 7:30am. We got out of bed and waited for the next bell to ring which signaled the waiters going up the hill to help get breakfast ready (we took turns to be waiters). Fifteen minutes later, a third bell would ring and we all went up to the lodge to eat. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all followed the same sequence. I have to say, our camp food was pretty good.

Our bedtime was different for different age groups: 9:10pm was the time for our group, the junior section, to go to bed. We were allowed to read in bed for 10 minutes with flashlight until 9:20pm when all lights were out.

Writing Letters Home

At camp, we were not allowed to have electronic devices except for iPod for listening to music. So the only way we communicated with our families and friends was through mail. Every Sunday after lunch we would go back to our cabins to write letters. I loved writing letters to my parents. It was a great way to keep in touch with them and know what was happening at home. My mom and dad had kept their promise and they wrote me almost every day. I always looked forward to receiving their letters. Reading their letters made me feel really happy when I missed them.

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My Nana, aunt and cousin also wrote to me and sent me fun postcards or newspaper clips. I exchanged letters with a friend of mine whose family had just moved down to North Carolina. I even received a letter from a former Lower School teacher of mine who had been here as a camper, a camp counselor and a camp director since 1998 until last year.

When I came back from camp, my parents told me my letter writing has improved quite a bit. They said I wrote with more details, expressed more feelings and used larger vocabularies. Yay!

My Favorite Activities

I loved all my camp activities, but of course, I had a few as my favorites.

My first favorite activity was swimming. Who doesn’t like swimming? But at our camp swimming was very special–we got to swim in Augur Lake. The water was clear, the air was fresh, and the dock was beautiful! There were a few things we could do at swimming. The first was the general swim, the second was the diving board, and the third was a 10-foot high jumping tower.

IMG_3372To be able to jump from the diving board and the tower, we had to take a series of Red Cross level swim tests: we needed to swim from the main dock to the boat dock for 16 laps–each lap was about 40 feet in distance; we needed to put a life jacket on in the water; we needed to swim in our clothes and shoes for 4 laps; and finally, we needed to swim across up to the other side of the lake, about 1,200 feet away. I passed all four tests in my first week and I jumped from the tower into the water in my second week. It was awesome and I was very happy about it.

How did camp counselors keep track of us in and out of water? We used double-sided tags on a board. Each time we went swimming, we would flip the tag to the red side to indicate we were out in the water. When we finished swimming, we would flip the tag back to the white side. So nobody got lost. That was super important.

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At camp we had an awesome wood shop where we could create and make all our arts and crafts. In the wood shop, all the tools were man powered, like saws, drills, hammers, screw drivers, wood chisels, and a lot more. I got to use them all. I made a wooden boat which I named “the Dragon Boat,” two bridges for my train layout using Popsicle sticks, a ring holder for my mom and a bookshelf for my dad. The coolest part was I got to design them from scratch, make and glue them together all by myself. I had a fantastic experience at our camp’s wood shop.

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During my weeks at our camp, we had the option of going on many different types of overnight trips. Each cabin would go on its own cabin overnights, which meant that we would canoe across the lake into two spots, Cubs Point or Pirates Cove. Our cabin went to Pirates Cove; it was a bit farther than Cubs Point in a hidden area on the other side of the lake behind a large cliff.

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We would load up canoes with camping gear, paddle across the lake to Cubs Point during lunch time, and continue on to Pirates Cove. When we arrived we would pitch a couple of tents and put our gear in. We then went swimming in a small beach area, cooked on a large campfire for dinner, hung around and explored the area. In the morning we would go down to the campfire, cook and eat breakfast, and paddle back to our main campsite. I learned some basic survival skills in the wilderness. My dad said these were important skills to have.

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Another of my favorite activity was hiking. There are 46 main high peaks in the Adirondack park area. To be a high peak, the mountain we were climbing had to be over 4,000 feet. Many campers have tried to get their 46ers over the years, which means we have to climb all 46 peaks.

This summer I climbed 2 of the high peaks, Cascade and Porter, plus 2 lesser peaks, Rooster Comb and Hurricane, which were below 4,000 feet.

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I had never climbed up that high in the past and this was a whole new experience for me. When I reached the peak of Cascade and looked around at the landscape in front of me, it was just like I could see the whole world. The view was amazing! I couldn’t believe I was that high up. Looking down at the valley, I could see small towns and ski jumps and bob sledge courses at the Lake Placid Olympics. The small cars were like little ants running around along the road. I reached the top and touched the summit marker knowing that I had climbed up the mountain and I could finally relax my legs. I had conquered my first High Peak. It was an amazing experience.

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Perhaps my most favorite activity this summer was archery. It was my first formal experience in this sport. Somehow I connected to it naturally. At camp our instructors told us in order to do well in archery, we needed four things: be physically strong, have a firm footing, a good aim and a strong focus. For me archery was really fun and exciting.

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For safety reasons, at the archery range, we were not allowed to cross the line unless permitted. When we wanted to shoot, we were instructed with four commands: pick up your bow, knock your arrow, fire at will, and retrieve your arrows.

At our camp there were three major ranks: Tracker, Path Finder and Guide. Tracker being the lowest was the easiest to earn, and Guide was the hardest to earn. In every activity there were also their own made up ranks. In archery, for example, there were altogether 18 ranks. To get each of the three major ranks, we had to be able to shoot at 15, 20 and 30 yards and got points from 60 to 160, depending on which rank we were going for. The archery tracking system was recorded on a chart on the door of the shed at the range. As we received a rank, we would color the square in red.

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I started at the first level of 15 yards. Looking back now, that was so easy, but it was not easy back then as a first time archer. When I got my first rank, the Tracker, which was 15 yards and 60 points, I felt really pleased with myself. I then set myself a goal for this summer: to get the highest official camp rank in archery, the Guide. On my third to the last day at camp, I finally got it. That was one of my happiest moments at camp! I have received 11 out of the 18 ranks in archery this summer. Way to go, Ben, I said to myself!

That’s all I have to say about my summer camp. I was worried about going to camp at first. But when these three weeks were over, I was ready to go back next year!

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When my son finished the last line of his enthusastic story, my heart was bursting with joy. He had fun, he was happy and he had an awesome time. He is growing into a confident outdoor adventurer. Just what we had hoped for at the beginning of the summer. I am so proud of him!

I have to say, his amazing camp experience is just as valuable to him as it is to me. I am gaining new perspectives because of this. A year ago I couldn’t imgaine myself sending him away for 1 week, let alone 3 weeks, but just like him, after this summer, I am ready for a longer session next year. I’ve learned to trust his judgment and let go of my fear. 

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An Unlikely Friendship: Three People, Two Cultures and a Single Bond

In the summer of 1994, after four years of studying and living in the US, I invited my parents to visit me for the first time. First time for my Mom to come out of China; first time for my Dad to come to this side of the hemisphere—he had only taken business trips to Japan in the past. So before they arrived, I had prepped them with a few “Don’ts,” things that Americans were typically uncomfortable talking about but we Chinese never shied away from.

“Do not ask people how much they make.”

“Do not ask woman how old they are.”

“Do not ask people whether they are married or not.”

I told them. “Do not describe people as ‘fat’ but use ‘big’ instead,” I also warned them, “because unlike in China where ‘fat’ is a neutral word, in America it is a bad word; it borders on moral judgment like ‘stupid’.” For whatever reasons, Chinese had been intrigued and even fascinated by why Americans often looked taller, larger and stronger. We were so convinced that it was the cheese eating that did it. So I thought if they knew these unspoken social norms, they would ultimately avoid unnecessary awkward situations with my friends, my professors or people they might meet. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I lived in a small house, one of the few house-turned dorms for graduate students on a quiet street in downtown Princeton. The University owned them all. Each house had three floors, and each floor 3-4 rooms. The students shared three bathrooms and one kitchen in each house. My room was on the top floor, like an attic, enough to fit a single bed, a desk and a chair. Small but cozy.

We had a janitor take care of the common areas of our house. His name was James, a tall African American man with very dark skin complexion, a bit on the heavy side, maybe in his early 40s. Gentle and friendly. Every morning around 7 o’clock he would pull up his beaten-up Pontiac into the driveway promptly and stayed until 6 in the evening. During the day, he would go around the houses cleaning the kitchen, hallway and bathrooms, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn and taking away the trash. He would also do some light repairs for our rooms. When he walked around, a long string of keys dangled from his hip would give away the clicking sound as if to announce his arrival. Sometimes he would heat up the lunch he usually brought with him in the microwave and eat with us: white rice and black beans. Same food. Every day.

My communication with James was quite minimal. As with every graduate student, I went about with my crazy schedules, rushing in and out of my room like lightning. I would cook up simple meals quickly and return to the library. But whenever I saw him in the hallway, on the street or around the house, I would politely greet him, sometimes cracking a couple jokes here and there. That was about it.

Then my parents’ arrival changed everything.

During their visit in the summer, my parents stayed with me in my cozy little attic. I shared a bed with my Mom, and my Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. Don’t ask me how we did it, but we did. My parents were early birds. They got up before 6 o’clock every day and went about with their morning exercise routine, often doing Tai Chi, walking and strolling around the blocks. My Dad, being a quintessential extrovert, was charismatic, outgoing, curious and not afraid of making mistakes (I am anything but that unfortunately). He could read some English but did not speak much of it. Nonetheless, he often carried conversation with people he met with his halting English. My Mom on the other hand, an introvert and observer, was more on the quiet side. She did not speak or read English.

At the beginning, as with any new acquaintances, James and my parents were friendly and cordial with each other: they would wave, smile and nod whenever they met. But within a few days, quite remarkably, my Dad and James had become like old pals, often laughing and talking with manly handshakes and bear hugs. To help him better communicate with James, my Dad often brought with him an English-Chinese dictionary to look up for words and expressions that he might not fully understand. My Mom on the other hand, was not so quick to embrace such warm gestures. She continued to smile and nod at James but kept a healthy distance from him.

One time after greeting my Dad with a bear hug, James tried to give my Mom a hug, too. Visibly uncomfortable and guarded, my Mom had quickly pulled herself away even before he pulled her closer. Unfazed by the moment of awkwardness, James hugged my Mom anyway. I watched them on the side, part embarrassed and part amused, but I was not surprised. Apart from her personality as an introvert, cultural inhibition was also a key in my Mom’s reaction. Like many Chinese of her age, she had never known a single person whose skin color was different than hers, let alone stood so close to one. Besides, she was only 5 feet and 110 pounds, and James 6 feet and over 200 pounds. I could imagine what went through her mind, but I knew all this would change with time.

One evening after dinner my Dad casually said to me: “James is a good man. He works really hard.” He continued, “You know, he didn’t have a father growing up. He lived with his mother and grandmother as a child, and now lives alone in Trenton. Is that the place we accidentally ran into the other day?” I knew exactly what he talked about. A few days earlier on our way back from Longwood Garden, while looking for a gas station, I accidentally made a wrong turn into, shall I say, a not-so-desirable neighborhood. It was the first encounter of urban poverty for us, a family from the other side of the world. Though my parents had been through a lot in their own lives under China’s Communist regime, this experience was still quite dramatic for them. I remember we sat quietly the entire time afterwards until we reached Princeton. If I were to guess what was on their mind, it was the despair in people’s blank stare that shocked them the most. It was also the sharp contrast from the beauty, grace and affluence of Princeton, the not-so-far-away picturesque town they were first introduced to. In their mind, hunger and poverty should be rare in this country.

So I told him: “Yes. It’s the same Trenton.” My Dad then said: “Well, since I have nothing else to do, maybe I can give him a hand. What do you think?” Having known my Dad all my life, I knew even if I said “No” to him he would offer his help anyway. So I said: “Sure, but don’t overdo it.” Just like that, my Dad started a self-appointed pro bono job as a janitor’s helper in a country thousands of miles away from home. Initially he helped clean the kitchen mess, like wiping the table, washing the stove, and gradually, he started taking away the trash and sweeping the floor. The two men’s friendship had also deepened. My Dad even picked up a few slang terms from James. Don’t ever “get high” was one I still remember vividly.

I bumped into James on campus one afternoon. He was very complimentary about my parents, saying how lucky I was to have them. Then he said, “I have been thinking about this. It must be uncomfortable for your Dad to sleep on the floor. There is an empty room on the same floor as yours and no one is going to move in until in the Fall. If you are OK with it, I will unlock the room before I leave in the evening and your Dad can go sleeping in there. Lock it back on in the morning.” Wow, that was a very generous offer and would be of tremendous help to us, I thought. But I said: “It is so very kind of you, but I don’t want to cause any trouble to you.” “No trouble at all.” He said, “The room is empty this summer anyway.” With that, my parents were finally able to have a couple months of comfortable living arrangements during their short visit. What a wonderful gift from James!

As with international students studying in this country, one common thread we all shared was our constant homesickness. The smell of a familiar dish sometimes could quickly trigger a mysterious and overwhelming nostalgia. So it was quite a treat for me to have my parents’ company in the summer that year. My Mom was a great cook who could whip up some delicious hearty meals in authentic Sichuan style that I had not had for a long time. I felt like a princess. Every day. There were two other Chinese students living in the same house at the time. Knowing how I missed homemade meals, my parents often invited them to join us when we made dumplings, steamed buns and other delicious dishes together to share. Always a happy occasion.

James was curious about Chinese food and often watched my Mom cook. She would patiently explain to him through my Dad what ingredients were needed and why they were needed. Gradually they had built a nice rapport. Each time she made some delicious dishes for me, she would save some for James. One day she said to me: “James seems to eat the same food everyday for lunch—rice and bean. How awful. Maybe you can ask him if he wants to join us for lunch.” Ever since then James had become a frequent guest at our lunch table during the summer. My parents were very happy to have him eat with us. To use my Mom’s words, it was just “a matter of adding an extra pair of chopsticks.”

Three months flew by quickly, and by the time my parents were about to go home, they had become a big fan of James. My Dad not only continued his pro bono janitorial work, but he also appointed himself as a house inspector, frequently reminding my housemates to clean after themselves. The two men continued to exchange laughs, jokes, hugs, and even fist bumps. My Dad’s English seemed to improve quite a bit, often chatting with my housemates on subjects like politics or China and US relations. Perhaps the biggest transformation was from my Mom. Though she was still on the quiet side, she had completely let her guard down. She was more receptive to James’ bear hugs, and on occasion, she would reach out to James with handshakes. She even started to greet strangers on the street. From time to time she would invite James to come with us to the Chinese grocery store, so that she could show him a few Chinese dish ingredients that he might be interested in later.

On the day when my parents were heading out to the airport, James gave them a card. I forget the entirety of what he wrote, but one thing has stuck in my mind all these years. He told my Dad that he was like a father to him that he had never had. The two men stood there holding each other’s hands for a long time, their eyes welled with tears. An unforgettable scene.

In 1998 when my parents came to see me again, I had already graduated from the University but still lived in an apartment in Princeton. When they knew James still worked in the same houses, they asked me to invite him over for a re-union dinner. We made dumplings together. Just like the first time they met, my Dad and James carried a lively conversation with the help of an English-Chinese dictionary, and my Mom listened quietly, smiling and occasionally pitching in. Just like that, three people of different ages, different races, different cultures, different languages, and different skin colors, shared a single thread—a beautiful friendship across continents.

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When I write this blog, my mind travels far back to these hot summer days, with a mixed emotion of nostalgia and sadness. Now my Mom is gone, my Dad is slowly finding solace in the loss of his lifelong partner and I lost contact with James quite sometime ago. And yet the thought of their unlikely friendship has brought heart-felt warmth to me. I marvel at how people transform in the process of building a friendship, moving away from the place of fear to the place of bond.

In Yoga practice, we believe in the teaching and spreading of kindness, non-judgment and mindfulness. Indeed, we don’t have to be the same to be human to each other; we can be different but still be human. The fun of human interactions is to celebrate and relish the differences. We let our guard down, we embrace the unknown, we open up to endless possibilities, and then we find a common thread. The friendship between my parents and James reminds me the importance of celebrating what bonds us rather than what divides us.

Mama Dearest: Post Mother’s Day Reflection

First Mother’s Day without my mother. The lingering sadness is sometimes poignant, and others numbing. People say the feeling will never go away, but time will heal. I believe it.

In fact in the past 5 months since her passing I have been more reflective than grief-stricken. What is the single most important thing I have done that has made my mother happy? I have been thinking. A doctoral degree from Princeton? A decent job at a Fortune 500 company? Nah. Surely these are the things that have made her proud of, but neither has made her happier than a family of my own, and soon after a child who transformed me into a mother. My mom was not just happy, she was ecstatic. Like any other mother, I imagine. It’s just that she had never overtly expressed it. So her. I can totally relate to it.

Through her action and my own experience, I have come to realize that motherhood is such a deliberate act, one that embodies intense love, empathy, patience, mindfulness, caring and giving. It can manifest in a wide range of emotions: joy, happiness, pride, awe, forgiveness, worry, disappointment, fear, anger and pain. To our children, we are essentially a commander-in-chief, a dictator, a friend, a cheerleader, a fan, a sympathizer and occasionally a partner-in-crime. Sometimes mothering is smooth sailing others storm impending, but ultimately it is belief beyond believing that defines a mother’s love.

I was a late bloomer—marrying late and giving birth late—not a grand gesture of my feminist side, I can assure you. In a culture that often puts a premium on families and children I was quite the exception rather than the norm. I am sure of it. I would belong to the league of “leftover women”—a term that often refers to a Chinese woman in her late 20s who is still single and unwed. Sigh. Luckily I moved far away during my prime reproductive years, and my love life was not subject to close scrutiny. But that didn’t make my mom’s worry for me go away. She probably worried more.

Every now and then when we spoke on the phone, my mom would casually bring up the topic of marriage with a “by the way…” I knew she was trying to get a progress report from me, but the conversation would always end with her saying “I know that special person is out somewhere. You are destined to meet him one day. Don’t sell yourself short.” That was her subtle way of nudging without pushing. I was sure she must be incredibly relieved when I was finally “domesticated” at age 38 and became a mother at age 40—39 ½ to be exact.

Ironically in many ways, my mothering was as much to mimic my mom as it was to break loose from her. Literally. It was comical and hilarious at the beginning. I remember the long list of “Dos and Don’ts” she had sent to me right before my son was born. All were rituals and customs about what a new mom was or was not supposed to do. After all they worked in her time and in my culture.

Rule No. 1: Only hot and warm food and drink; it will help your body recover faster–but I went straight for ice water and cold milk.

Rule No. 2: Stay in bed for the first 30 days; you will benefit from it for the rest of your life–but I started moving around as soon as I was discharged from hospital. I am still pretty healthy 11 years later.

Rule No. 3: Keep your baby indoors so he won’t catch cold or virus–but I walked everywhere in town with my son snuggled in a Baby Bjorn on my chest, and took him on subway rides to see his pediatrician in the city on a weekly basis. He was fine then and is fine now.

Rule No. 4: Drink Pig’s Feet and Peanut Soup everyday so that you will have enough milk pumped out—but after 2 days of milk drought catastrophe, my milk supply could feed a troop of army non-stop. So I didn’t drink that thick and rubbery soup for a month.

Rule No. 5: Swaddle your baby tightly so that he will have beautiful straight legs—I did swaddle my son in a teddy bear cotton blanket hand-made by my sister and mailed to me directly from China, but I did it to make my son feel safe as if he were still in my womb.

The list went on and on. My point is it was not my mom’s childrearing advice that made her so special to me, but her presence in my life. To know she was always there for me was a tremendous gift she has left to me till this day. It has inspired me to so want to be an anchor point in my son’s life, and to roll with the punches as a new mom. Through trial and error. Many times.

It sounds like a cliché to say this but it is true. It was not until my son was born had I realized motherhood could be this profoundly meaningful and the love for a person could be this intense, eliciting “tight chest, lump in the throat emotion” (beautifully said, Sally, and thank you!).

In the early days when he was a baby, I often woke up in the middle of the night consumed with all sorts of worries: Was he breathing? Was he well fed? Was my milk nutritious enough to help him grow? Why was he not crying? Was he on track with his developmental milestones? I would check on him again, again and again. In his toddler years, I watched in agony his intense separation anxiety: the big tears dripping down his cheeks, that it-can-melt-your-heart sweet but sad face, and those tiny wiggly fingers trying to reach for me. Was he happy? Was he fearful? Was he having fun? Was he making friends? Could he feel my love for him?

How I wish I had known back then whatever he was going through was completely age-appropriate! I remember sitting by the door of his pre-school classroom waiting anxiously but patiently for the right distraction to draw him in so that I could walk away confidently without feeling guilty. I remember the 3-to-4-page note I often wrote at the beginning of each school year to his new teachers: about what I had known of him as a mother—his likes, his fears, his habits, his routines, his love for trains, airplanes, Lego, puzzles, as well as the many trips we took as a family. All with one hope and one hope only–to have an early head start for the teachers to bond with him. How incredibly silly was that! Maybe it was. But deep down I knew that was the least I could do to help my young son cope with the anxiety he could face in a new situation.

Now eleven years down the road, my confidence in mothering has grown in parallel to my son’s confidence in himself. Still a quiet, sensitive, empathetic, creative and analytical gentle soul, he has grown more self-assured by leaps and bounds. Do I continue to worry about him? You bet I do. Well, maybe the old worries have gone away but new ones have kicked in. I still have these awakening nights with the same intense emotion worrying. In a world of high pressure and fierce competition, how can I help him not only reach but also build his potential? And to never stop dreaming? How can I nudge him gently without pushing him too hard? How can I help him understand it is OK to be him? And to take more risks without changing who he is? How can I ensure what he wants is not what I want him to want? How can I prepare him to cope with potential adversity without breaking his spirit?

Then I see my mom and her broad smile at me. In motherhood there is no epic failure but only epic love. Bask in his presence. Roll with the punches. Enjoy the ride. She is telling me.

Oh, the magical power of a mother’s love, endearing and enduring. Nothing to worry about. I am telling myself.

 

In Memory of My Mother

FullSizeRenderHong Kong has a special place in my heart. It is a city my family likes to visit again and again. My husband goes there often on business trips. My son loves to jump on and off the beautifully built, one-of-a-kind Star Ferry shuffling people from Hong Kong’s one island to another. To me, Hong Kong is like a giant collage juxtaposed between eastern and western cultures. It is a soft landing pad enabling me to travel back and forth without feeling lost in either world. There is also a deeper level of connection for me with Hong Kong. Each year we travel there on route to see my parents. They live one hour away — about 10 years ago my parents joined China’s elderly “snow birds” splitting their time between the north and south. Once we arrive in Hong Kong, I can feel their presence and the excitement of my coming home rises up.

On December 7th, I rushed back to Hong Kong once again. But this time I could no longer feel the city’s exuberance. It was gray, dreary and damp instead. I could feel its hollow emptiness, frozen in time. Previous day I lost my mother, a pillar in my life, a woman who has a profound impact on me, molding me into who I am today. I was consumed with sadness, but mostly besieged with guilt. How come I was thousands of miles away from her? What could I have done differently to be with her before her passing? Did she suffer during the final moments of her life? Could she feel the pain? Was she thinking about me, my dad and my sister? Where would she go after this life? Was there indeed a place called heaven where she could continue to live and watch over us? These were some of the million thoughts rushing through my mind upon hearing the sad news.

As I tried to regain composure, I started to think about what losing my mother means to me. No one loves you like your mother. She knows you better than anybody else. We Chinese have this metaphor: we think growing up is like a mother’s unleashing you from under her protective wings. Bit by bit. Eventually she let go of her leash, setting you free. You are on your own. But the older you get and perhaps farther away you are from her, the stronger the grip you have onto her—the leash is invisible but you know it is there for you when you need it. You feel the ultimate closeness drawn to her. When she passes on, there is a certain sense of being adrift, unmoored without the foundational support she has provided your entire life. While I feel this huge void in my heart right now, I also feel my mother’s presence with me when I breathe in and breathe out.

I thought my mother was the most remarkable woman ever.

She was born in pre-communist China to a prominent family, on December 8th, 1930. The middle of three siblings, she had an older sister and a younger brother. Her father was a banker and her mother a housewife. He was a good provider, hardworking, progressive, and a man of vision and integrity. Unlike many Chinese parents during that era who gave all the attention and privilege to boys, my grandfather insisted that my mother receive good education. So she did. She went all the way to college, enrolled in a top university until Mao Zedong came into power in 1949. Mao’s promise of a new China had brought out unprecedented exuberance and enthusiasm among China’s idealistic youth. My mother was one of them. Barely 19 years of age, unfazed by giving up her comfortable life at home, she left her ”silver spoon” behind and joined Mao’s revolution. Unbeknown to herself at the time, her life had later turned into a rollercoaster ride.

For those of you who have read Ms. Nien Zheng’s marvelous autobiography Life and Death in Shanghai, you may have already gotten a glimpse of China’s modern history: exciting and hopeful at times but sad and heart-breaking at others–from a war-torn nation, to a communist regime under the iron fist of Mao, to the great famine and the unimaginable Cultural Revolution. Mao’s era was nothing short of misery and brutality. Any remnants of wealth were an indication of opposition to his power which would be crushed by all means. Any individuals whose opinions dared to deviate slightly from his were deemed “counter-revolutionaries” and would meet their fate by persecution. Millions died through starvation, forced labor and execution under Mao’s regime. If you think Stalin’s Soviet Union was bad enough, Mao’s China was the evil twin.

For my grandfather, Mao’s China also meant no private assets were allowed. His bank was confiscated and properties taken away. He was put in jail. His crime? Stealing money from his own bank! All attempts to make him confess to the charges of embezzlement failed; all efforts to indoctrinate him were met by a steadfast and fearless refusal to accept the terms offered by his interrogators. But in the end, perhaps in the hope of sparing him and his loved ones from further mental torture and humiliation, he committed suicide in jail. The irony was all this happened while my mother was away fighting for Mao’s revolution. Decades later, when my grandparents’ properties were symbolically returned to their family, my mother chose not to claim her share of the inheritance, leaving it all to my aunt.

During all these years I had known her, my mother had not mentioned a thing about her life before me. Each time I attempted to find some answers from her, she would simply say, “Not worth telling it again.” Years later after I had settled in America, I was able to gather bits and pieces of her story from my aunt—my uncle’s wife. I started to realize that the memories must have been too painful for my mother to revisit. This time at my parents’ home, while digging through my mother’s treasure boxes, I discovered a photo. It was taken about 8-9 years ago. She and my uncle were visiting my grandparents’ graveyard in their hometown, Chengdu, Sichuan Province. On the picture, my mother was kneeling down, holding a stack of burnt incense in front of my grandparents’ tomb–burning incense is an old Chinese tradition to pay respect to our ancestors. The anguish and sorrow were written all over her face. She was crying, and crying uncontrollably. I was deeply touched. My mother, the woman I had known for being reserved, observant, and yet capable, disciplined and confident, had rarely shown her vulnerable side in front of other people, not even her loved ones. Here she finally gave herself in, pouring all her emotions out. Looking at the photo, I couldn’t imagine how much guilt and agony she had buried in her heart for all these years! I was in immense awe of my mother.

After the Korean War, my mother joined a West Point equivalent army institute, teaching mathematics to male officers while finishing up her bachelor’s degree in Statistics. There she met my father. Their life and love stories would later unfold like a Hollywood tearjerker. Under Mao’s iron fist, China had been through unimaginable human catastrophes one after another, and the “Brand New China” Mao had propagated before 1949 had turned into a giant human tragedy brewing pot–millions died through persecution, starvation and forced labor. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had become symbols of human suffering and ultimately, the epitome of human resilience.

During that time period, my mother’s privileged family background deemed her an “enemy of the state.” My father’s gutsy courage to speak up his mind about China’s cruel reality “earned” him forced labor in Siberia, farming in the Northeast, and studying Mao’s doctrines in re-education camps. For the next decade or so, my mother followed my father from one Gulag to another, sometimes together and other times on heels, enduring mental and physical hardships I couldn’t even start to imagine. As a result, my sister and I were brought up mostly by my paternal grandmother during our formative years.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, my parents were finally able to settle back home with us. My mother dived right into her line of work, trailblazing her way into a world of math and numbers dominated by men. She quickly became one of the most sought after statisticians at her workplace, often traveling to places to attend conferences, give talks and work on number-related projects. But because of her family background, she had been kept outside the door of “Chinese Communist Party” throughout her career. Like many people of her time, my mother’s youthful exuberance about Mao’s new China was ultimately squelched by Mao himself, perhaps the biggest tragedy of her generation.

For anyone whose life experience had a slight similarity to my mother’s, s/he may have already succumbed to the physical and mental torture, but for my mother, the suffering and anguish didn’t dampen her spirit; rather, they strengthened her character. No complaints. No regrets. No second guesses. She continued to charge on with her life like a real soldier. To me she had transcended everything I knew about human resilience.

In this time of loss and reflection, I have had so many memories about my mother come washing over me. One favorite story involved how she used clothes to subtly express her feminine side. In Mao’s China, women were not allowed to celebrate their feminine side in any shape or form. No skirts. No high heels. No make-ups. Not even waves of long hair. Women were all dressed like men: blouses and pants in color black, blue, gray, white or army green. Any deviation from that was deemed counter-revolutionary. Growing up I was always so impressed at how my mother put together each and every day. Yes, she followed the Party’s dress code, but her blouses were wrinkle free and pants crease sharp. Often she amped up her fashion by showing a hint of bright color through the collar of the shirts she wore underneath her dark-colored blouses. Refreshing and endearing. This little gesture had set her far apart from the crowd, and she had kept her fashion sense and sensibility till the last day of her life.

My mother left many gifts to me, but perhaps the most significant gift she passed on to me is her teaching of “believe in yourself” and “get up where you fall.” I call it the Girl Power. Growing up as the younger of two girls in the pre-one-child-policy China, I was keenly aware of the many brothers and sisters my neighborhood friends typically had; some even went so far as to have 4-5 sisters until a baby brother descended to the family. Suffice to say, I was part jealous and part grateful. When I grew older, I realized just how much boys were preferred in my culture and how important for a family to have one. I was curious to find out why my parents didn’t continue to produce a male heir. Were they ever regretted? I often wondered. One day I raised this question to my mother. She looked at me amused and burst out: “How silly! Boys are trouble makers!” That was that. But the story my father once told me had me love my mother all the more. After finding out another girl had joined the Zhao family, my paternal grandmother lobbied many times in vain for a grandson, but every time my mother would tell her: “Why do we need a boy when we already have two beautiful girls?”

My mother truly believed in the Girl Power. She was not a person of many words, but every time she spoke, her words were authentic and carried tremendous weight. She often said to me: “So long as you set your mind on things you like, you will succeed.” Growing up I had never heard her label such and such “are for boys only,” or such and such “are not good for girls.” Rather, she encouraged me to play with boys, even if that meant to be rough and tumble. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I spent 6 months with her in her re-education camp—my happiest childhood memory. All day long I ran around with the local kids, chasing dogs, catching flies, playing hide and seek in the corn mazes. In the evening I would come back to our small cottage with cuts and bruises all over my body, sometimes in tears. My mother would check on them, wash off the dirt, pat on the injured spot and say something like “You are fine. Go have some fun tomorrow.” Perhaps because of her support on my back, I never felt subpar to boys, and always happy to take on challenges, mental or physical. Years later, these characters had served me well when I was thousands of miles away from home, on my own feet, reaching for the star. After her passing, while organizing her treasures, I found an army medal of honor she had received decades ago. Along with it was a certificate issued by China’s most respected and all-time military leader: General Zhu De. Her achievement? “Dedication to her teaching.” She was only 22 at the time. I was in immense awe of her.

My mother was the biggest fan to my sister and me. She had been there for us every step of the way even when I had my share of the terrible teenage rebellion. I loved that she encouraged me to follow my heart’s desire, but I also liked that she was not shy of giving me her input to my opinions. In my culture, science and engineering were considered superior to social science and liberal arts. They were core skills that would likely to grow with age, people say. They were also safe haven from political persecution as far as you stayed away from critical and independent thinking. A famous Chinese saying goes like this: “Mastering of math, physics and chemistry will take you to the top of the world!” Not surprisingly, all China’s leaders have engineering background. But I loved storytelling, and I was a thinker. So when I decided to apply for colleges, I wanted to study social science, like journalism. My mother cheered on my decision, but at the same time pointed out the pros and cons as a journalist, namely, lack of independent journalism in China. And she was right—journalism in China was merely a lip reading of the official Party line. So in the end I didn’t apply for journalism schools, but was admitted into a top university in Beijing known for its training ground for China’s future diplomats. The best decision for me!

When someone you love dies, it makes you wonder what happens in death. We Chinese believe in after life. We send our loved ones to heaven and their souls stay with us. For the first few months after their passing, we visit their graveyards every few weeks, burning incense to pay respect to them, bringing food to them, talking to them, checking on their life on the other side. These moments are sacred through which we are forever connected, and they are part of us who live on. I have brought my mother’s spirit with me back home and it will stay with me forever.

Upon my return from China, I soaked myself in a Yoga class. It was taught by a friend of mine, that younger, fun-loving quintessential Yogi girl. Her class is typically upbeat, reflective. This time, at start of the class, she read a short essay to us, a touching, beautiful essay, bringing many tears to my eyes. I am sharing it here:

Life is so ephemeral. Here one day and gone the next. You never know when your life is going to change in an instant. Cherish each blessing in your life. Life is so delicate and tender. Take nothing for granted because you may wake up one day to find everything is changed forever. No matter how much you want it back, you’ll never turn back the clock to a time gone by. Take the time now to appreciate the gifts that you have in life. Your body, your breath, your family, your friends. All the love that surrounds you, all the love you heart. It’s all that matters.”

I can feel you inside me, Mom, your love and support! I know you would love to see us continue to embark on what life bestows on us.

I love you Mom!