If You’d Only Look
A nine-year-old wonders whether her story of a publicly shamed elephant is responsible for her immigrant mother’s mysterious condition.
nce upon a recent time, I fed my mother a poisonous story.
It was an accident, I told myself, for who would deliberately sentence her own creator to an unconscious limbo?
My mother was the storyteller of the family; she found magic in the mundane and relayed it to us in the stupor of nighttime. Most of my classmates had stopped being told bedtime stories months ago, but my mother operated beyond the realms of American parenting.
At my age, life unfurled across a spectrum of predictability: passing periods, playdates, prepuberty. So my mother’s tales, lyricized in honey-smooth Chinese, were welcomed by both me and—if you could get her to admit it—my high-school-age sister. Despite her ardent protests against bedtime stories (she was far too old for them), our shared room offered her no respite, and it didn’t take a keen eye to observe that she always happened to be “dropping by” during my mother’s narrations.
Our family was a dangerous combination—a cool-exterior, hot-interior trio who each professed individuality only to be inescapably bound by our shared temperaments. In that sense we were no more unique than the plastic pods at amusement rides that spun children around angrily before settling into preordained clusters, destinies in steel.
I was convinced there was something distinctively surreal and maybe even magical about my mother’s stories. They invited the listener to explore certain vagaries of consciousness.
I was convinced there was something distinctively surreal and maybe even magical about my mother’s stories. They invited the listener to explore certain vagaries of consciousness. Often, during some rising action or climax, I would be jolted awake, double-shot espresso style. But by every story’s end, I would fall into a profound, unshakable slumber. When absorbing her tales, all perceptive agency seemed lost both during and after, as if their plot diagrams also contained blueprints to my consciousness. If one were to conduct a trace analysis of my psyche, they would find bits and pieces of her story characters ingrained into my mind—from the woman who learned her way around a city through garage sales; to the boy plagued by the failure of watches; to the girl who, in growing taller, was convinced the world was shrinking. If other people’s personalities were the sum of their five closest friends’ and family members’, then I was the composite of my mother’s five most recurrent protagonists’.
Like bookends, her tales often began and ended with some incomprehensible aphorism.
“History is cyclical, and stories mimic history,” she would say. “What I’m sharing are stories that have already happened and stories that will happen. Does that make sense?”
“No,” I’d reply drowsily. “Not at all.”
“Someday you’ll see,” she assured me, but the Chinese inflection of her words seemed to translate her promise into a command.
Unbeknownst to my mother, I had become accustomed to throwing her words away. Her life lessons possessed the same magical qualities as her tales set in the far-off lands of her parents and their parents, places I had once known but could no longer remember. What exactly will I see? By the time I was old enough to do so, I would’ve already forgotten the initial thing I was supposed to finally understand. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t matter if her stories were real as long as their effects on me were.
I felt bad, but knew I wasn’t alone in selectively silencing her parent’s voice. At school, my friend Catherine’s mother doubled as my homeroom teacher, and the two of them were constantly bickering, trying to embarrass each other in play-battles rooted in love.
“Gosh, Mom,” Catherine would say during passing period as her mother tried to win her attention with a nickname and eager wave.
“Can you not let the world know we’re related?”
But with them, everything was tinged with a lightness and endearing humor. Amidst the pranks and humiliations, no one doubted their love for each other. I couldn’t imagine having that kind of interaction with my mother in public, one in which jokes didn’t have to tunnel through layers of bicultural meanings, where affection was doled out generously and accepted graciously.
My perception of my mother was always after-the-fact and out-of-focus, as if recalled through the postdream haze of a lazy Sunday morning. Instead of recognizing her good-natured attempts at small talk with Mrs. Hack during the school Christmas party, I would criticize her billowy plaid culottes for being outdated and tacky. Instead of congratulating her on her latest academic conference speech, I would denounce the thickly accented sieve through which her words trickled, seemingly tainting everything she said with flagrant markers of foreignness. What my mother cool-headedly exuded and what others casually observed and forgot moments later became inscribed in my memories, distorting all our future interactions in a dense cloak of shame.
To me, our mother-daughter relationship made more sense as just another story, better in the privacy of Chinese than the sterile reality of English.
To me, our mother-daughter relationship made more sense as just another story, better in the privacy of Chinese than the sterile reality of English. Whatever inklings of tender love existed between us seemed no more real than the story about the girl who believed the world was shrinking, which I always assumed was an allusion to how my mother felt when pregnant with me.
“Imagine that for one hundred days you’re floating, light as air, and at the same time under immense pressure,” she explained to me. “It feels like the whole universe is trying to squeeze you into a mental blankness. Yet somehow all this swelling and aching is your body’s preparation for the arrival of life.”
She spoke with the empathetic detachment of someone recounting the experiences of another person—a close friend, perhaps—instead of herself, as if pregnancy were an out-of-body marathon and she the reluctant passerby summoned to participate.
“For some reason, the typical first-trimester fatigue never came,” she elaborated. “I remember thinking there was something wrong with me or the pregnancy from the very beginning. It drove me crazy—wanting to be tired when I wasn’t, like the reverse effects of coffee. If anything, I had more energy than before I was pregnant. That was the single bright side to this whole mess of an ordeal—that I was more energetic and productive. It was during that time that I first got the idea of getting my PhD. Your father and I joked that we were parents with strong ties to the bureaucracy: a professor mother, a municipality official father.
“By the seventh week I had nonstop horrible pains that grew from my belly button. From there it blossomed into a vague kind of stinging—impossible to pinpoint at any given moment yet unmistakably piercing, as if teleporting across my stomach’s nerve endings. To soothe my pain, your father would make ‘cold’ dishes of pickled cucumber and steamed pear to balance out the ‘hotness’ of my body during pregnancy. I appreciated his efforts, but nothing fully alleviated the pain except childbirth. After you were born, I was forced to stay home for thirty days during the ‘sitting month,’ or zuo yue zi. If I thought pregnancy was unbearable, this was at least tenfold worse. Your father didn’t care if I left the apartment, but my mother had taken up a habit of visiting me every day. She would come over in an attempt to exhaust me into not leaving the flat, unaware that her presence itself was enough to wear me out. I wasn’t allowed to wash my hair for fear of headaches, nor could I shower for fear of water entering the loose holes in my skin induced by childbirth.”
As if validating her own structural rigidity, my mother glimpsed at her hands, squeezing them into tired, loose fists before letting go. Sensing her story drawing to an end, I felt a vague uneasiness, which I tried to dismiss by mustering up the usual bedtime drowsiness.
During the period of zuo yue zi, my mother choked down “hot foods” to rebalance the forces of yin and yang in her body—pungent herbal potions and pigs’ feet with dates and sesame oil chicken. She tolerated her mother’s presence with the dispassionate stoicism of a sentinel, and by the month’s end she was back at work, part-time.
Here my mother paused and stood from the armchair she sat in while relaying stories. The way she lugged her body now mirrored my reimagining of her during pregnancy: mindful with the concentrated effort of a toddler, or septuagenarian perhaps, her orthotic slippers cushioning every flat-footed step. Her walk gave off the general impression that she was being caught by her own shadow. Only now, without the weight of another life in her belly, she seemed somehow more weighed down.
Adhering to custom, my mother signaled the story’s end with a life lesson: “Our bodies are the only thing we know to be real. They let us perceive the world, and everything we perceive is our truth, even if it’s not real. If you’d only look, you’d see that this life is magic.”
I had come to expect the skeptical dismissal that typically accompanied my mother’s aphorisms, but those words stuck to me like the little paper tails of the cartoon donkey on Mrs. Hack’s wall. My confusion, however, was soon edged out by malaise, which finally punctuated reality in the form of a question.
“Why do you only tell me Taiwanese stories?” I asked. It wasn’t until my lips uttered these words in an act of bodily betrayal that I realized they were what I had been suppressing all night.
“What do you mean?” she questioned honestly. “These are simply stories of life.”
“But the characters are always Taiwanese. Even when they’re true stories they’re Taiwanese—they’re just about you and dad and our family. What about this American life?”
My mother’s brows furrowed. “What do you mean?” she repeated, her voice harsher, discordant. “To me it is all just life. America is a state of mind, not a citizenship. If you want an American story, imagine I am a white woman speaking.”
“To me it is all just life. America is a state of mind, not a citizenship. If you want an American story, imagine I am a white woman speaking.”
But I was unsatisfied with her answer. To me no portrayal of life that escaped her lips would ever be American in the way Catherine’s was.
I paused. “How about I tell you a story?”
This marked the first time I had ever challenged our matriarchal household’s oral narratives. I spoke in an easy, hurried English—faster, I knew, than my mother would be capable of fully understanding.
I began with an innocuous fable about elephants:
On a particular day in a particular land, a herd of elephants wavered on the brink of tragedy—their elephant princess was dying.
Her condition was unclear, her myriad diagnoses all invalidated by multiple elephant physicians caught in disagreement. Some posited that it was the pressure of the throne, the compounding of each herd member’s wishes and expectations weighing upon her like stones that collectively became mountains.
The elephants, being elephants, prepared for burial even as the queen refused to acknowledge the impending calamity of her world, one that would soon mirror in her own heart all the negative spaces left in her daughter’s place. In the only way she knew how to express her love, the queen resolutely—and some say impulsively—trampled off in search of the fabled honeyberry, the supposed antidote to all the one thousand ailments that could ever befall an elephant. No amount of pleading or insistence could convince her to stay, though she knew with a certain amount of confidence that her daughter would not live through her return.
As prophesied, the queen’s risk did not pay off, and by the time she neared the herd in three days’ time, the princess had long been mourned and buried. The herd had known only fierce communal loyalty throughout their long elephant lives and could not fathom why the queen had abandoned her daughter in her most crucial moment. But the queen could not have lived with herself if she hadn’t attempted to seek out the honeyberry at all.
What kind of mother is absent during her own daughter’s dying wishes? the herd murmured. She’s just like the father. Radical, callous, irresponsible. An embarrassment.
The overthrow of the queen happened so respectfully, so peacefully, in gentle waves of public disobedience and elder disapproval that the queen was quite frankly blindsided when, one day, she realized with humiliation that she could never again step foot onto the herd grounds.
After departing rather unceremoniously, the queen was rumored to have taught herself how to cultivate the honeyberry. Whatever social clout she had previously yielded was replaced by a purely horticultural governance and, worse, an ever-present itching to do something, anything that could establish for her a more meaningful legacy. She lived for a thousand more years until at last she grew weary of life and ingested a poison-laced honeyberry, betrayed by her own longevity in a world that had altogether forgotten her existence.
My nine-year-old mind was incapable of crafting metaphors in a nonobvious way. My mother digested all that festered between my lines of speech, and her face winced in a way reminiscent of mapo tofu heartburn.
I knew my story was all the more painful to her because, beyond infringing upon her realm of storytelling, it illuminated her biggest self-perceived weakness: idleness. It also highlighted my biggest perceived weakness of my mother: the inability to integrate into society amidst stubborn emotional illiteracy. She was terrified of fulfilling the Chinese axiom of “leaves falling to roots” and, as a result, worked tirelessly to challenge fate’s mandate that she would one day become her no-good bum parents, who survived a Japanese-occupation military raid of their high school only because they had skipped class that day for their first date.
For my mother and father, life was less attributed to chance than to the fruits of their own labor. They were luckier than their parents in the way we were luckier than them. Traces of historical resistance still lingered, like dog-eared pages that had been forcefully flattened between a book’s covers. But with each subsequent generation, political instability had gradually evolved from a cruel reality to a nebulous memory, until at last it existed solely as textbook recitation. My parents had strayed from their parents, and I in turn had strayed from them. I began to understand my mother’s maxim that history is cyclical.
My parents had strayed from their parents, and I in turn had strayed from them. I began to understand my mother’s maxim that history is cyclical.
All her life, my mother clung to her dreams with an unrivaled grip strength, her greatest fear probably being to live out the classic Taipei housewife’s tragedy: interruption, postponement, and, finally, sacrifice of dreams. Even at a young age, she was conditioned to believe that her aspirations were anything but hers. Soon enough, she was told, her achievements would be absorbed into her husband’s title, but in return she would gain a family and some form of domestic bliss. University at twenty, married by twenty-three, mother by twenty-five. What more could she possibly want?
My mother rebuked her parents’ commands with her own counteroffer: moving in with another man by twenty-five, deeply in love but not married. She had obtained a bachelor’s in sociology and was working full-time as a survey researcher. She phoned reluctant participants, usually single, low-income parents, and asked them a string of ill-omened questions: On a scale of one to ten, how do you rate your current health? Or—the least popular question by far—Estimate the likelihood you will fall ill within the next month.
My sister was conceived not long after; my father assumed the role of sole breadwinner and, when she was born, stay-at-home dad. My mother used this to her advantage and got her master’s relatively easily, taking online courses at a nearby esteemed university after lulling my sister to sleep every night with warm cinnamon milk and Taiwanese fables.
During this time my parents had grown immune to the concerned whispers and ill-fated wishes of this-or-that aunty and her traditionally minded husband. Somewhere amidst the unwanted judgments of outsiders, I was born in an unlucky year on an unlucky day. According to my mother, this in no way hampered their affections for me. And so, with each reemergence of the moon, my parents’ defiance of cultural expectations waxed just as familial ties waned.
The day my grandparents officially denounced my mother as their daughter was the same day she decided to come to America for her PhD. She had developed her thesis on Asian American perceptions of cultural identity and, since her second pregnancy, had entertained the fantasy of adopting a more immersive, field-learning approach for her doctorate. A byproduct of this research was a racialized hyperawareness that manifested in the micromundane: being disproportionately turned away by grocery store cashiers who closed their checkout lanes just as my mother neared them; enduring the countless ni haos and konnichiwas of well-intentioned yet culturally insensitive strangers; and carrying the diasporic burden of tipping well at restaurants, hair salons, and taxis in the hopes of dismantling Asian stereotypes of stinginess. It wasn’t until her first conversation with a financially distraught academic peer adviser that she realized the term for her experiences. So for twenty years, my mother nonironically interpreted tax evasion as tax of Asian, as in, the societal surcharge of being an immigrant. After she officially became a doctor of philosophy—my sister and I chuckled at the ridiculousness of the title, of being a doctor who couldn’t practice medicine—we thought her hardest years had passed. But then she busied herself with the seemingly interminable task of securing tenure.
“Once I become an associate professor,” she would say, “I’ll be able to relax, spend more time with you girls.”
But I knew that after she got tenure, she would wear herself out all over again vying for the status of full professor.
Despite my parents’ strong ties to bureaucracy and civil service, the Asian helicopter archetypes American society expected had failed to materialize in both my overseas father and emotionally illiterate mother. Maybe I was not—am not—the best child by any measure, and distant relatives have often lamented my shortcomings in fulfilling the docile Taiwanese American daughter paradigm. But I justified my unsavory attitude with the assertion that my mom was more concerned with Asian American diasporic identity than her own daughters’ self-perceptions of maternal love.
Regrettably, I didn’t have to protest the cultural origins of my mother’s stories for much longer. For the next few weeks, she discarded the usual stories in lieu of rehearsals for an upcoming conference presentation, to be held before a well-meaning but culturally insensitive audience in the socially inept world of academia. This was her last chance to establish herself before her tenure review by a faculty committee of non-Asians, who viewed her through their veil of intellectual elitism with an exoticized curiosity and baseless apprehension.
No, not like that, I would say, instructing her in the nuances of the phonetic. Pinch your lips back like you’re smiling for the short a sound, like how Americans do it; now imagine you’re almost-but-not-quite caressing the smooth hill of your mouth’s roof for the r sound.
Watching her perform lip-gymnastics to alienation and cultural relativism for weeks on end, I envied the nine-to-five lifestyle of Mrs. Hack, whose professional duties seemed bounded by the school’s perimeters. My mother’s newly defined cheekbones protruded beneath sallow skin like elephant tusks jabbing for escape. Together, my sister and I prepared “revival kits” of ginger tea, dried seaweed, and pork floss—her favorites.
But even we couldn’t have predicted the illness that befell our mother by midweek, the morning of her committee review.
I recalled my story of the publicly shamed elephant queen. Could a story be poisonous? I couldn’t help but wonder if I were somehow responsible for my mother’s current state.
She had simply not woken up, as if her body had spontaneously arrested her consciousness without fully confiscating life. My sister discovered her in an indeterminate state of repose and phoned 911, who, despite sending over a doctor, was not altogether helpful in the matter. The physician, a recent medical school graduate judging by her overcompensating cordiality and self-consciousness, conducted a full-body assessment with the aid of her assistant. Neither could determine the cause of my mother’s apparent coma nor settle upon a diagnosis. The only consensus was that, coma aside, she was in overall stable health and needed merely an IV drip, a daytime nurse for monitoring vitals, and regular external stimuli that might inspire her awakening.
I recalled my story of the publicly shamed elephant queen. Could a story be poisonous? I couldn’t help but wonder if I were somehow responsible for my mother’s current state.
Without her tales, my sister and I set about experimenting on each other in attempts to induce sleep through narration. We determined the fates of our dreams with rock-paper-scissors: loser had to be storyteller, while winner reaped the luxury of listening and was thus ensured a better chance at slumber. Over the next days, we edged closer to suspensions of consciousness than we’d expected, but landed farther off than we’d hoped. No story had quite the right effect; most served only to the extent of summoning a brain-fogged limbo.
That night, my sister crawled into bed next to me and drew the covers high around her neck.
“No rock-paper-scissors,” she offered.
“Really?” I asked, ecstatic—I had lost for the past three days, and my stories were starting to blur together.
“Sure, my turn to tell a story.”
“I overheard you and Mom at bedtime the other day,” my sister began, “talking about her pregnancy and your dumb-ass story about elephants.”
“Hey—” I began to protest in defense. But she pushed on with the frazzled resolve of an insomniac attempting sleep.
“Well, I still haven’t figured out why Mom told you she slept so soundly when she was pregnant with you. The thing is, she was sleep-deprived all the time. Like, practically the entire nine months. I’d never seen her that exhausted before or since. I would find her sprawled out on the couch with a heat pack for her swollen ankles at two in the morning, watching English-dubbed reruns while munching on seaweed snacks. The week before you were due, I don’t think she slept at all. Dad and I took turns reading aloud to her, these Chinese translations of short stories—Chekhov and Poe and Borges.
“After you were born . . .” Her voice dissolved into a stolen breath.
I was impatient. “What?”
“Well, you can see for yourself what she’s like now. I don’t think her condition is necessarily better—I mean, before all this stuff happened. But even on her worst days it still wasn’t as bad as during her pregnancy.”
My sister continued. “At least now she has some sort of purpose, you know? In that sense I do think that coming to the US was best for her, even if it split us up as a family. Here, she’s not just stuck carrying around your little vampire baby self for nine months. She’s what you’ve always known of her: bust-ass workaholic, part-time mom, stamped with the symbols of another time and place. You know she was top of her class at Fujian University? She never really took credit for it, either, said it was luck and not brains that got her there. Maybe this was the universe’s way of finally making her rest.”
My sister’s voice cracked and she stopped to stare at me with something shy of disgust. But beyond that I could see that her eyes were tinged with a deep melancholy, too.
“Why do you have to be such a pain-in-the-ass to her?” she suddenly spat, a free-falling tear mingled with saliva tainting our one-foot radius.
“What do you mean?” I asked, offended by her accusation. Whose side was she on, anyway? But in thinking that, I had necessarily acknowledged the existence of sides—mother versus daughter, a tragic pitting of cultures and personalities and genetics.
“Whatever.” She slinked away in her usual feigned mysteriousness. But today I wasn’t amused or even annoyed by her theatrics.
I stomped off to the kitchen for a glass of warm cinnamon milk and found myself in my mother’s bedroom instead. You know when your body sometimes has its own agenda and carries you off somewhere, only by the time you realize it, you don’t know whether to blame your mind for its spacey-ness or your feet for their autonomy? This was one of those times.
I wavered before her rumple of a body. Collecting any potential stray tears were the crow’s feet that I used to vigorously help her rub mink oil into, as if trying to scrub out the wrinkles. She rested under her beige linen covers with a willed, otherworldly peace, assuming the appearance of one who existed solely in fairy tales. Perhaps she was dreaming, I thought, conceiving stories so wild they rivaled the ones she told while awake. I observed, for maybe the first time, the swollen bags under her eyes, the permanent creases of brow. It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t noticed them before as I hadn’t allowed myself to. Unearthing my mother’s secrets was akin to chasing a two-headed snake in the morning fog: her narrative mistier and lengthier with the years, her story bidirectional and unfurling toward the future while simultaneously stretching toward a forgotten past.
If you’d only look, you’d see that this life is magic. Maybe magic was waking up faithfully every morning, tirelessly writing proposals and reviewing manuscripts, then coming home with enough residual energy to cook dinner, pack lunches, revise one more page, and tell bedtime stories to your thankless daughters. It meant not only acclimatizing to the prejudices of a community that forever labeled you an outsider but pretending not to see your own child’s shame every time you opened your mouth to an American public. But magic—magic existed at nighttime between spoken words and uttered breaths, transforming the ephemeral into permanence.
In my periphery, I noticed my mother’s fingers twitch in their efforts to lift themselves from the bellybutton over which they were crossed. Her attempts were largely unsuccessful; her hands merely trembled, as if slowed by some primordial goop. To me, it looked like she was struggling to break into the shallower ends of consciousness, grasping desperately for autonomy, a second chance, life. Like she was dying to hear everything I never told her, if only I’d begin.
No, I finally realized: my mother had been wrong. If everything our bodies perceive is our truth, then our truths must be real.
“Hey, Mom, wake up!” I wanted to shout, fighting the fiery sting behind my eyes. “I’ve got a story for you, the one from last time! But don’t worry—I rewrote the ending.”
I rested on the perimeter of her bed and shifted around until at last I was reclining, my body conforming to hers. I felt timid and doubtful but also vaguely optimistic, like one who, in believing prophecy, fulfilled it. I placed a palm over her taro-cake hands: flaky but fragrant, with a just-baked warmth. Settling in, I caught a lungful of air and began my story, hoping that by its new ending my mother would have opened her eyes to this magical life.