“But we’re never alone, and I always eventually turned to see my ancestors by my side. See my grandmothers’ solar faces.”
–Suheir Hammad, Born Palestinian, Born Black (1996)
My grandmother gave birth to me when I was two years old and I was sent to live with her. Before me, after me, she gave birth to five others: my father, my uncle, my aunt, my brother, and my cousin. It’s hard for me to draw my bloodline in a way that runs parallel with theirs. There are all these places where it gets pixelated. When I try to sew my baby parts together it always feels like I forgot a limb somewhere.
I don’t know my grandmother very well. She raised me for eight years when my parents were working too much to look after me, but I’m not sure if I could pronounce her real name. My Chinese handwriting looks like a kindergartener’s, and my grandmother was an illiterate village girl until she was eighteen. Whenever we write letters it feels like two people touching each other’s faces in the dark.
Ever since my grandmother’s motorcycle accident three years ago, she’s been riddled with this anxiety that she will soon forget her memories. She Skypes me once a month and tries to record her memories in me. She tells the story of how she raised me over and over. One memory will incite another and soon she can’t stop talking for hours, in circles, until I get tired and put the phone down. It feels weird to be a secondhand witness to a history my body was present for but my brain cannot remember. My grandmother yells at me over the static of the computer monitor and fills in blanks that I didn’t know were erased. In these conversations, I often don’t say a word—I don’t think she notices or cares.
She tells the story like this:
My mother and father came to America in 1991 from Red China. By then, there were 684,000 Chinese immigrants living in the United States—bodies yellow like moons, or maybe like peril. My mother dropped out of her PhD program at Ohio State University when she became pregnant with me. She says it was a lucky accident, but bringing a living thing into the world is a lot of work. She had one pair of maternity clothes that she wore every day and washed carefully in a basin every night until her shirt was stretched thin over her orb-like belly. At night, my father slept on the couch of the restaurant he worked at in Chinatown. My mother scolded him every time he bought McDonald’s because they couldn’t afford it.
When my mother gave birth to me in 1994, she sent me to live with her family in Zhengzhou, China. My mother said this broke her heart, but she couldn’t raise a newborn on the couch of some restaurant. The first person I called 妈妈 was my aunt, the second person I called 妈妈 was my grandmother, and the third person was the neighbor’s daughter. My aunt likes to joke about how I cry more now than I did when I was a baby. I used to say “hello” to every stranger on the street and I never threw fits at night. All my relatives whose faces I no longer recognize tell me what it was like to hold me. It’s eerie to think of myself being transported back and forth between distant hands, each of them holding a sliver of my history. It feels like being fostered by a house of ghosts.
After I lived in Zhengzhou for two years, it became my father’s family’s turn to take care of me. At the airport, before I got on a plane to Shanghai, my aunt tricked me into thinking she was just going to the bathroom because I wouldn’t let go of her hand. That was the first 妈妈 I lost—I hardly remember her.
In Shanghai, I stayed with my grandmother in a tiny loft she shared with my uncle and my grandfather. She tells me about how swampy and humid the air was that year. There were a lot of stray cats that lived on my street, and I liked to feed them fish from the market on weekends. When the typhoons came in the summer, I was worried that the cats would drown, but they always came back after the rain had passed.
“Do you see?” she said. “Even stray cats have homes in the wild.”
My grandmother was adopted when she was a baby and the orphanage lost her birth certificate, so she doesn’t know anything about where she was born, or who her real mother is. By then the time I moved in with my grandmother, I felt like all kinds of beings had given birth to me. I didn’t know what to call them—妈妈 of the diaspora, 妈妈 of the flesh. Even the old women who sat on buckets and played cards in the park are my 妈妈 too.
It’s hard to say if I’ve forgotten the things I don’t remember. They are recorded in the creases on my grandmother’s hands, the archetypes of my unconscious, my cruelty. For a long time, I blamed my mother for sending me away to be raised by someone else. I wanted to know why she didn’t just get an abortion if she knew she had to mail me to Shanghai with a suitcase filled with baby formula as soon as I was born. It took me a long time to recognize her as my real mother instead of looking for subtle and insidious ways to prove I was not her daughter. “上帝，我怎么出身怎么奇怪的女儿?” she would ask whenever I did something bad.
“Dear God, why did you let me give birth to such a strange child?”
Ten years later, I can finally recognize the true source of my resentment: I am not bitter about the experience of being raised by many mothers, but I am bitter about all the mothers that have been taken away from me.
This is a list of things I remember about my grandmother:
I am two years old when my brother is born in America. His name is 娄思 浩. My grandmother and I leave the fervid ennui of the sun and go to my parents’ house in Athens, Ohio. My grandmother is granted a visa that is valid for one year.
My grandmother’s visa expires. The sky in suburbia is pink and oily like grapefruit. After she left, I think a swampghost came and buried its roots inside all my hollow parts. My parents enroll me in preschool but I am withdrawn because I can’t speak English. I want to know what I am and who made me this way: painfully shy, black seed eyes, weird tongue.
My grandmother comes back with a visa that is valid for another year. My parents buy a house in Seattle after looking at photos on the Internet. They want to move there because of a movie they saw, Sleepless in Seattle, which I’ve never watched but know it’s one of those calculated chick flicks where beautiful people fall in love when they don’t mean to. A few months later, we drive across America in a dark blue minivan that reeks of vomit. My grandmother likes to wear XL Adidas tracksuits she brought from the black market in Shanghai. I think they look so pretty on her. In the summer Seattle is hot and misty like a monsoon or maybe God’s saliva.
My grandmother’s visa expires. She lives in America for five years as an undocumented immigrant.
My uncle’s daughter is born. Her name is 娄思辰. I ask my father what her name means and he says, “It is a name. Does not mean much.” My grandmother moves to Shanghai to take care of her instead. I sometimes wonder if she knew that she would never be allowed to come back to see me again.
I resent my grandmother for leaving me here in this place. I look for quiet ways to defy my parents, like by not brushing my hair or smiling in photographs. One day an older boy from the neighborhood calls me a chink and I bite down on his hand so hard it draws blood. My mother has many superstitions about my misconduct. I can hear her talking to my father in their bedroom. She thinks I have a little rabbit heart beating inside me that’s been bitten by a snake.
My grandfather dies one night in his sleep.
My grandmother applies for a visa and is rejected.
My grandmother gets hit by a motorcycle and loses vision in her left eye.
My grandmother applies for a visa and is rejected.
My grandmother applies for a visa and is rejected.
I haven’t seen my grandmother in over four years. I’ve reconstructed her image so many times that it’s hard to decipher what is real and what is a translation. I’ve hardly retained any memories from before age ten, but I still have this distorted recollection of the last time she walked me to the bus stop and the way she’d smack her lips together when she was disappointed in me. I am often struck with this vague fear that there is this original paradise that she exists in, and as time passes this paradise becomes increasingly desecrated and impenetrable. I am afraid that she will die one day and all I’ll have are these murky, fragmented memories without a body that corresponds to them.
But I know I can’t forget about the ones who raised me just because I can’t touch them. You can cut umbilical cords but I think there is something else, ceaseless and unspoken, that keeps you rooted inside your mother, and your mother rooted inside of you. Suheir Hammad writes: “Borders are man-made, and I refuse to respect them unless I have a say in their formation. Besides, call Spirit what you want, essence is one and eternal.”
If someone’s essence is what lives inside their ghost, then there are reasons we keep those ghosts alive through reproduction and ritual. My grandmother is still living, but she has ceased to be real to me. She’s become this detached mythic being that represents parts of my diaspora that I cannot perforate or recollect. When I recreate her architecture, I am recreating the hands that raised me. This is the importance of remembering: I want to reconstruct her image with such potency so that one day, when she dies, I will feel like all I have lost is a body.
Five years ago, my grandfather passed away in his sleep. That morning, my grandmother called me as she arranged his belongings to make a path wide enough to carry a body through. In many Chinese families, a parent moves into their child’s house when they reach old age instead of to a retirement home. My grandmother has five children in different cities spread out across continents, but she still lives in a house alone, in Shanghai, with the door of my grandfather’s bedroom closed.
Iimagine she watches television late into the night while sitting next to his ghost. When somebody you love is suddenly gone, there is a psychic vacancy they leave behind. Ghosts do not make good surrogate mothers, they are the dispossessed outlines we cling onto. I have one sitting next to me now in the shape of a grandmother.
The older I become, the more it seems like genesis is fluid—slippery and subversive like the ocean my parents crossed, or the Chinglish I speak when I fight on the phone with my father. It paralyzes me to think about the sacrifices my family made before I was in my mother’s womb. When they came here they knew they would lose a part of their language, their memories, their sanctity of self. For this reason, I want to be the kind of daughter who brushes her hair and doesn’t bite her classmates on the playground. I understand now that what I once dramatized to be the tyranny of my parents (Chinese language school, phone calls with distant relatives who held me once as a baby, eating dried seahorse when I have a fever) was a method of protecting their history so it will not die with them when they die. In this way their ghosts live in my tongue, my hands, my wounded rabbit heart.
I Skyped my grandmother last night for the first time in a long time. She doesn’t know how to use the computer, so her webcam was tilted so that all I could see was the upper half of her face. There are still a dozen white hairs on the top of her shiny head that made me think of ash, or maybe of snow. I can’t tell you where my grandmother ends and where all my other mothers begin. They’ve amassed into one amorphous being now: a nebulous, collective 妈妈 with a coarse Shanghai tongue and wrinkles deep like craters.
Over five million people in America immigrated here by overstaying their visas. Almost 99 percent of them are never caught, but there is one condition: if you leave, you can’t come back. This is a kind of disappearance, a premeditated amnesia, and this essay is a recording of one face in a sea of five million. Whenever I see my grandmother’s grainy hologram on the screen, I think about how I wish she could Skype me into her tai chi lesson. I wish my grandmother could Skype me into her visits to my grandfather’s grave. I wish my grandmother could Skype me into her kitchen, her living room, her fire escape. I wish my grandmother could Skype me into her.
I sometimes feel better when I have the Chinese 拼音 Tool open as a tab in front of me. It means I am writing something my grandmother can read with her one eye that can still see. Last night, she told me that she has a hard time with colors now. She said that some shades of green are cloudy, purple looks a lot like blue, but yellow is the hardest. She said that if she looks at anything that is yellow it feels like she’s staring straight into the sun. I said I have a hard time seeing yellow too.
Definitions are important because they are the vessels we give meaning to when we conceive of ghosts, and ghosts are important because they are the remnants of a floating world that was ripped away from us. But definitions do not stay constant: the way we contextualize ourselves is as mercurial as the way we reconstruct our past, one crippled shard at a time. I think it matters less what we remember, and more that we don’t forget.
I’ve written down some definitions of the word “yellow” so that my grandmother doesn’t forget what it means when she can no longer recognize the color:
like my brother’s cavity-stained baby teeth
like the 黄河
and poppy flower seeds
like the fever of white boys
like the color of the factory where my grandparents first met
or the 20,000 pounds of bones buried in shallow graves under the Pacific Railway
the yolk that 盘古 broke when he made the earth
like the IV dripping in my grandmother’s wrist
or maybe the sun.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan.