My mother has always been this creature of mystery -- you could tell her soul was heavy with whispers of the past. The limited time we spent together often involved discipline or cooking, often at the same time. There was also the constant lectures about the importance of hard work and saving money. Let's be honest, growing up she was never the "cool mom".
She was the one that always said no to sleepovers and often told me truths I didn't want to hear. She'd scold me and make me feel uncomfortable and foolish and always made me address elders with the proper name -- Ah-yi, shu-shu, ye-ye, nai-nai, wai-po, wai-gong, da-mama, bo-bo ... it was hard to keep track of. But as a child you never took the time to ask yourself why your parents did the things they did, or hard it must've been to step up to the role of being the bad guy -- the focus was intently on how damn mad they'd make you feel and how much you despised the word "no".
I'd always learn the most about mom when we'd cook together. She'd paint me stories of the past as I honed my knife skills by practicing the art of chopping cubes of bean curd into thin, uniform slices. Later on when she opened her own business and things became busy. her dishes were what she'd leave behind for us every night and those would be the only parts I'd get of her for a long time. With what little energy she had left in her night, she spent calculating how much she made that day and how much closer we were to paying off our debts. It wasn't until recently that I realized she was counting her way home.
Home is different here -- the energy of the city and the richness of the culture swallows you whole. From the elders who practice qi gong in the park at the crack of dawn to the children who walk hand in hand to school -- the vast city of Shanghai felt oddly small and intimate. People paused and took the time to talk to each other on the streets. They'd ask about their families and health, they'd laugh and sometimes even mourn together, they would become a part of each other's daily lives without realizing it.
What struck me most about the culture was the level of attention and respect the elders were given and how cherished and revered they were by everyone around them. Since as young as I could remember, my mom would always send money back home. It was her personal duty as one of four siblings to always ensure her parents were well taken care of. In every letter she'd write home, she'd comfort her parents and never wanted them to worry about money and that our family was more than comfortable and happy back in the U.S. I always knew a part of her felt guilty about leaving her family behind and how much of her wanted to be there instead of this strange foreign land she desperately tried to become a part of.
But as parents, you make these boundless sacrifices and you pray and hope and pray and hope some more, that all these personal givings will attribute to something great someday and with time, patience and conviction, all this heart wrenching work will pay off and ultimately create something beautiful for this World to share.
Though many say that a child is a true gift to the parents, many times I believe that good parents are God's gift to a child. Because with good parents come good hearts, and good hearts are what fuels hope and faith which in turn keeps our souls deeply rooted with one another. And that is what makes life captivating.
I smile at my mother as she loudly exclaimed "Look at how beautiful your wai-po was when she was young!" She held up an old red frame holding a photo of my grandma and grandpa. I watched as her eyes twinkled as she laughed, a look I've only seen when she's with her mom. "I give wai-po hug and kiss every day just like how Americans do. She loves it -- huh ma? What you think?"
I look at my grandmother's face as she stared at her younger self. I try to imagine the life she's lived, the loves she's lost, the stories that are still left untold, buried deep in the depths of her heart. Perhaps all parents may seem a little mysterious to their children.
With age, I've enjoyed having my mother more and more as a friend. When we're together, an ease fills my veins and a wonderful familiarity wraps around me. And year after year I get to learn a little more about her, peeling back the layers and seeing her more as a person than just as my mom. And as the picture becomes clearer and the bonds tighter and stronger, it becomes so much so that many times I find myself panicking at the thought of losing her. Much like what she must feel now with her mom.
The day I leave, we wake up at 5:00am for my 11:00am flight. Mom insisted that it's better to be early than late, especially with unpredictable Shanghai traffic. I owe it to her to never argue about such things anymore.
As we ride to the airport she squeezes my hand -- both of us fighting back tears as we listen to the wheels of the taxi tumbling across the pavement, taking us once again further away from each other. Never in a million years did I realize that the true gifts in life really were always right there in front of me.
It's hard to say when we'll see each other again, hopefully sooner than later. But 'til then, her light will shine within me and everyday I'll work hard to make sure her sacrifices are never taken for granted. And just like the city, she'll always be my beautiful mystery of hope, strength and love.
You can read Part 1 here.