When I was 15, my mother fell in love with a man who was not her husband, who was not my father.
The man was in every way the opposite of her husband, my father, a Chinese immigrant with a Ph.D. in political science. The man my mother fell in love with was a white man, a college drop out in his 40s, who ran an appliance store, and who lived as a “houseboy” with an older white man in his mid-80s.
I hadn’t realized that people still used the term “houseboy” until I heard white people in our small town refer to this man that way unironically, the way other people in other places I had lived might say “caregiver.”
I was used to the white people in our small town using language in odd and old-fashioned ways. When we’d first moved from the New York City metropolitan area to a small farm outside the college town of Vermillion, South Dakota when I was 12, I’d been shocked when the white kids in school used the term “Chinaman” unironically in order to refer to my father.
I was shocked when they referred to the Native American students in my classes as “guts,” short for “gut eaters.” One boy explained it was because Indians used to eat the guts of the buffalo back in the day when the buffalo still roamed freely across the prairies and the Indians had not been beaten by the U.S. military and forced onto reservations.
None of the Native students ever referred to themselves this way, I noticed. They called themselves “Indians” in class, and in private conversation they would identify by their tribal affiliations. I’m Lakota. I’m Oglala. Yankton Sioux. I know this because they would tell my brother their tribe then ask, “What tribe are you?”
My brother passed for Indian. I did not.
White people in those days used to ask me, “Where are you from?” And when I’d say, “New Jersey,” they’d look surprised and tell me about the Oriental baby their cousin adopted and then they’d smile as though they were trying to make me feel more at home.
Decades later I’d learn to call this a racial microaggression.
When I tried to explain to my mother that the white people in this town were “racist,” my mother refused to use the r-word. She instead called them “uneducated.” Sometimes she said they were “jealous.” Often she said they were “just kidding.” As a white woman, my mother made excuses for the racism of other white people.
As a child, I tried to suppress the deep pain that I felt whenever I was subjected to these racial microaggressions committed to make me feel Other. All the white people I ever told this anecdote have said, “Oh, I think they were just trying to be friendly,” but do white people go up to white children and say, “I know someone who adopted a Russian kid”? Why or why not? Discuss.
Answer: White people do not by and large question the status of white families. White families are the default normal of white supremacist America. They are just “families.” The rest of us have to be justified, categorized, explained.
I could not feel less at home in that small town. I have spent the entirety of my adult life looking for a place that I could call “home” after leaving that small town at age 18 and refusing to return.
It surprised me that my mother felt at home in this place. For years, I convinced myself that she was only pretending to like this town, pretending to like the white people whom she called her “friends.”
I assumed that she was kissing up to them in the wrongheaded belief that if they liked her, if she charmed them, then they’d like the rest of us, or at least accept us, her family.
I could not bear to think that my mother really liked these people who used racial slurs and whose kids made slant eyes at my brother and me in school, laughing, joking. “Laugh along,” my mother counseled when I complained to her at home. “It’s just a joke. Show them you can take a joke.”
My mother’s father went by the nickname “Chink” when he was in the Navy. It was a joke, my mother explained, something the other men called him because his eyes were so narrow. My mother said her father liked the nickname; he thought it was funny. A white man being called a slur for a Chinese man. She thought this story showed that her father was “not prejudiced,” as she put it.
When I was a small child, and my mother told me this anecdote and laughed, I couldn’t describe the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t describe the heat rushing to my face that made me feel something was burning inside me, turning my insides to ash.
Later I’d know to call this feeling shame.
When I was four, when I was five, when I was six, and I was told the story of my white grandfather being called “Chink” and liking it, and I was forced to pretend to like it, too, I was being taught that my appearance and heritage were funny to other people. To white people. To my mother’s father, whose tastes and opinions we were taught represented America whereas ours did not.
When I was a child, I remember my father saying we should always be grateful to Martin Luther King Jr. Without the Civil Rights Movement, he said, my parents’ marriage would not have been legal. In fact, the Supreme Court case ruling in Loving v. Virginia striking down all the anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. did not occur until fourteen months after my parents were married and a week after my birth.
Love being legal and love being accepted are not the same thing.
When I was 12, we moved from New Jersey to South Dakota to live on a small farm. My father had accepted a new job at the university in the town and my mother wanted to live on the farm. When white men drove by our house on the weekends, shooting, it was not very funny. At first my mother was very angry. She called the sheriff’s department and whoever answered the phone would say “What do you want me to do about it?” and no member of law enforcement ever came by to investigate. She took me to the local hardware store and we bought “No Hunting” signs, and she had my brother and me nail all the “No Hunting” signs to tree trunks and fence rails.
The white men still came driving by shooting. When my brother and I were at school, someone drove by our house and shot our dog. We found the first dog, dead, in the ditch after we got off the school bus one afternoon and followed the trail of blood from the driveway to the ditch in front of our house.
The first dog was named Mozart.
The second dog of ours to be shot was named Shaogou, which means “little dog” in Mandarin Chinese.
The third dog was named Bandiaozi, which means “bandit,” because as a puppy he’d had a lively personality and was difficult to control.
The fourth dog was named Tiger. He was just a puppy. My brother had bought him as a gift for my mother for Mother’s Day, although the shooter clearly did not know that.
The fifth dog killed was not shot but run over in the field beside our house. She’d been my dog. I called her Ernestine. She had a twin brother named Bert, my brother’s dog. Together they were Bert and Ernie, like the Sesame Street characters, which I’d thought was cute before white men started shooting at our house and I was still a child prone to whimsy. Ernestine had lasted the second longest of the dogs. She’d made it to be nearly six years of age before she was struck down in the field. The pickup truck that ran her down had left the dirt road that ran in front of our house, plowed through the ditch, climbed into the field, chased her down, struck her, then backed up over her head for good measure.
We know what the truck did because we could see the tire tracks in the dirt.
The man my mother fell in love with used to call her names: “ditz” and “klutz” and “lazy” and “spendthrift.” To begin, he called her “Blondie” and at first my mother was offended. “He treats me as though I’m stupid,” she complained to me. “I’ve been treated as an intelligent educated professional woman my whole life!”
Actually that was only true of my mother’s adult life. When she was a child, she was abused. Her father was an alcoholic. He beat her mother. He beat her mother even when her mother was pregnant. Once when my mother was about five or six years old, she was awakened in the middle of the night to her mother’s screams. Her mother was calling her name. She jumped out of bed and saw her father with both his hands around her mother’s neck, trying to choke her.
She ran to the neighbor’s house because my mother’s family did not have a phone at home. She begged the neighbors to call the sheriff, but they refused. She told me she said, “My father’s going to kill my mother.” But the neighbors said her mother was going to be fine. They said, “This is a matter between your parents.” They put her to bed on their wooden bench in their kitchen, laying a quilt across her body. My mother always told this part of the story with equal measures of embarrassment and astonishment: “Then I went to sleep.” She said, “I guess I was too young to understand.”
My grandfather also beat my mother.
My therapist said the white people in that small town must have reminded my mother of her father. My mother was “siding with the aggressor.” It was a survival strategy for the oldest child in an abusive family.
My mother was a parentified child. She was the eldest of eight. She was the “second mother” to her siblings. She and they used to say this with pride. She remembers when she was growing up, she always felt so skinny, so unattractive and unfeminine next to her curvy mother. “I didn’t realize she was always pregnant,” my mother said.
I did not realize that my mother had actually fallen in love with the white man in our town even though my father complained all the time. He shouted, “I am your husband! You are my wife!” I did realize, even though my father did not, that shouting is never an effective way to make someone love you.
My father could not say, “I love you and when you laugh at the white people’s racist jokes, I feel hurt. When you want to spend time at their parties, I feel hurt. When you prefer to spend time with [name redacted] rather than me, I feel hurt.” Admitting feeling pain while being attacked feels counterintuitive. Who points out their vulnerability when under attack from supervillains? Does Superman tell his enemies about kryptonite?
Long after my mother died, my father said, “If that man had shown one iota of interest, Mom would have left me. She would have married him if he’d asked her.”
But the man did not ask my mother to marry him. He did not love her. He was not interested in her despite the lengths that my mother pursued him. My father and brother thought the man was gay or perhaps asexual, back in the days before queer people could be open about their sexuality.
My mother dated a series of closeted gay men when she was a very young woman and wanted to escape the violence of her parents’ household without any pressure to marry or to have sex in the era before the pill. The men enjoyed going with her to the many arts programs she covered in her job as a publicist for a private college. It was apparently a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Perhaps this history is also why my mother was drawn to this single white man. She wanted cover. He would provide the blanket of whiteness while her attention would provide him the cover of heteronormativity in a small, racist, homophobic town.
I don’t think the white man had any idea what my mother was thinking. I don’t think my mother had any conscious idea what she was thinking.
His lack of interest in my mother was so obvious to me as a teenager that I did not realize that my mother had fallen in love with this man.
The white man was neither tall nor short. He was balding and doughy. He smelled like cigar smoke and mentholatum. I did not think of it at the time, but he must have looked like my mother’s father, not the elderly man that I knew as my grandfather, but the middle-aged man my mother had known as a child. Like my grandfather, he liked to tell racist jokes. He told all manner of stupid, crude, cruel jokes about the men who worked for him, about customers, about random people he’d see on the sidewalk, about the Indians in our town. About me. About my brother. I remember once overhearing him, saying something stupid and crude about my brother, and watching as my mother smiled quietly.
Later I confronted her: “Ma, that’s racist! You should speak up!”
My mother did not answer. She turned away, she found something she had to do at that exact minute, something that occupied her full attention, and walked away.
I did not say to my mother, “I wish you would not laugh when that man makes racist jokes about us. It makes me feel bad. It makes me feel that you don’t love me. When I feel that you don’t love me, I don’t want to live anymore.”
I loved my mother so much that the refusal of her love made me hate myself.
My brother used to cut himself to dull the pain. He stabbed himself with a pocket knife, in the tender spaces between his toes. “Stop, stop!” I cried, watching from the doorway to his room. But he never listened to me.
Why did my mother fall in love with this white man who said abusive things?
I tried to see him as she must have, the same age her father had been when she’d been a child. Her father was a white, uneducated man who’d dropped out of school at age 14. He told crude jokes. He said abusive things.
Perhaps to admit that this behavior is not love or loving would have required my mother to acknowledge that her father had not loved her. That the crude jokes, the verbal abuse, were just a prelude to the physical abuse. That the abusive behavior was not a mistake masking his true self, whom she longed to believe loved her, but was in fact a sign of his only self, which was a hot mess, a combination of narcissism, addiction, pain, and privilege, incapable of love.
My mother joined the white man’s prayer group and left our house every night five nights a week to attend. My brother and I were not allowed to attend because the other members were white supremacists who did not like my brother and me. My father was often traveling for work out of state and so my brother and I were mostly left alone on the farm to do all the work ourselves. Later, my mother rented an office space from the white man behind his appliance store and opened up her own business in town, a photography studio. She said to me she was doing this so that we would have “roots” in this town. I thought that meant she was trying to get the white people to like us as they liked to brag about their roots, five generations deep in this state. However, I also noticed that the idea of roots did not make the white people like the Indians, who clearly had been here for more than five generations.
Whose roots counted and whose did not perplexed me when I was child.
I had to work every day, including holidays, in my mother’s studio. But the moment I showed up, my mother went to talk to the white man in his appliance store. She laughed with his employees. When a customer came to our studio, I’d have to run next door to find my mother and bring her back to take the pictures she’d scheduled.
My mother never succeeded in having an affair with the white man. He did not love her. He was not interested in her as a lover. Yet she continued to pursue him.
Oppression can make us ill, physically and mentally. My experiences with oppression have made me ill. Since leaving South Dakota, I’ve had insomnia, stomach problems, GI tract problems, IBS, anxiety, and depression. My brother has undergone more than a dozen surgeries on his back. My father had two heart attacks. My mother died of cancer. But I believe my mother’s illnesses began earlier. My therapist suggested at one point my mother might have had dissociative identity disorder, where alter egos form in the consciousness as a child as a coping mechanism for extreme fear related to violence, like witnessing your father trying to kill your mother before the age of six.
Or maybe my mother was “siding with the aggressor,” getting as close to the white man as possible as the source of oppressive power, the way a child in a family with domestic violence tries to side with the most aggressive parent, thinking (incorrectly) that’s safest.
As a child, I believed that I could make my mother love me. I would do all that she asked and she would see how much I loved her, and then she would have to love me too. I rose at five in the morning to do the farm chores before school, I worked after school in her business, I made dinner, I did the evening chores alongside my younger brother until ten at night. I worked without pay for my mother so that she would see my love for her, thinking she would love me back.
But still she chose to love the white man, to pursue his love, the fantasy of his love, to use us to get closer to him, to give away our labor to try to win him over, to ignore the cruel things he said about us.
Who would not choose us, I thought? Our love. My father who commuted between two jobs to keep us in the “dream house” in the countryside that she had chosen. My brother and me working in the fields around her dream house.
Once my mother told me that a member of her prayer group adopted a pair of 12-year-old twins from India. But after she brought them to her home, the woman was unhappy. “They just sit around all day. They don’t do any work at all. They’re not like your kids,” she told my mother.
White supremacy in the United States has always been tied to the capitalist exploitation of the labor of people of color, children of color, the use of our bodies to create the leisure of a ruling class of white elites. White women have always been tasked, whether consciously or not, with upholding whiteness and patriarchy in support of this capitalist system of exploitation.
I used to wonder, did my mother blame us for the racism? For the strange white men who came and shot at our property? Killed our dogs? Called us racist names—chink and jap and gook—to our faces in the streets of this small town? Who slowed down their cars and trucks and turned to stare at us all the years that we lived there? I used to marvel how they continued to stare, year after year. Didn’t we ever become familiar or at least boring?
I used to wonder if my mother deep down knew the white man did not love her but she thought she could win him over. She could be so charming. She could laugh at dumb jokes as though they were clever. She could toss her head, flutter her eyelashes, her beauty shining as though a man were so special, she saw only him.
I used to wonder if my mother knew deep down that the white man was not very lovable, but he was a single man in his 40s, one of the few in this small town, where most men were married with five, six, a dozen children even. And he lived in a big house that belonged to the older man in his 80s. Maybe my mother figured, as many women in that town had gossiped, the houseboy would eventually inherit the house and the older man’s money.
I used to wonder if my mother felt safer with the racist white man than with us?
Because his kind of misogynistic abuse was familiar, something she’d survived before and knew how to survive again, whereas the kind of racist violence our family faced from the white supremacists was unfamiliar to her as a white woman.
No matter what her father had done to her, he had not taken away her whiteness.
After I turned eighteen, I left and I did not return on college breaks to my mother’s farm, even though she called me on the phone and cried because I would not return. I found paying jobs in other states for my summers. After I graduated, I went to live and work in China, in my paternal grandparents’ hometown of Nanjing.
Leaving was not the same as healing, I discovered, but leaving allowed me to live while staying would have been death.
After my parents moved away from that small town, to another state, my father had a heart attack. As if all the stress were waiting for the moment after their escape to explode.
A few years later, my mother was diagnosed with cancer.
She moved in with me although I was a student in grad school, having returned to the United States. I took care of her because I still loved my mother so much. I would go to any length to demonstrate my love, even if it meant working three jobs while going to school, falling asleep face forward over my homework, just so that I could attend to her every need.
I wanted my mother to see my love for her.
If my mother could see and feel my love for her, maybe she would love me back. She would consider me worthy of her love. A good daughter. At last. This was all I had ever wanted.
After she was diagnosed with cancer, after her mastectomy, and the start of her chemotherapy, she called the white man in the small town we’d left years earlier.
Later she told me about the conversation, shocked. “He laughed at me! All he did was tell jokes!”
She seemed surprised. She seemed sad, but also angry. I thought, At last she can see him clearly. Because this is how he’d always been.
Finally, my mother seemed able to see my father, remember why she’d first fallen in love with him. She told me how they used to go antiquing when they were newly married, picnics in Oak Glen, a trip to Laguna Beach. After her hair fell out from the chemotherapy, my mother exclaimed, “I’m so ugly. Some men wouldn’t love an ugly woman,” and my father said, “No, you have a baby head. You look like a baby.” He placed his forehead against hers, saying, “See, we have the same head, you and I.”
After my mother died, I waited many years but finally I insisted that my father allow me to clean out her things from his home. He never remarried. He’d kept all her clothes in the closet exactly as she’d left them.
Trying to understand my mother, I ask myself what does it mean to love and be loved when all you know is your mother’s abusive relationship? What does a man’s love look like?
What does it mean to be the child always making excuses for your parents’ bad behavior?
Daddy didn’t mean it. He’s just kidding.
My mother used to ask me, as she was dying those last few months of chemotherapy, “Why? Why did he do it?” She’d awake from a dream, and turn to me sitting beside her bed, grading papers. She wanted to know why her father had hit her. “Sometimes he seemed like he loved me!”
Is this not the nature of the unrequited, unconditional love that the nation demands of the rest of us for the White man? We are required to love him despite him. Founding father dearest. Daddy to us all.
It’s been twenty-six years six months eight days since my mother died. I’m still haunted by the way she chased the white man’s love during her lifetime, the way she sided with patriarchy and money and white supremacy despite knowing the violence of patriarchy and capitalism and whiteness, the way she was silenced by her father, by her mother, by herself.
The nightly news reminds me of my childhood, and my belly bloats, my throat constricts. Acts of anti-Asian violence, anti-Black racism, xenophobia, trans-hatred, homophobia, conspiracy theories, Jewish space lasers, attacks on immigrants, children in cages. I turn on the news and see another Black child has been shot by police. Always another scapegoat.
I understand my mother’s fear, I bear witness to my mother’s pain, but I refuse my mother’s silence.
Each morning when I wake, I choose to love my queer Chinese woman’s body. I speak up, speak out, march in protest. I won’t laugh along; I will get out the vote. I form coalitions. I am not alone. I refuse to accommodate the violence of white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy. My question, America, my motherland: When will you acknowledge my love? When will you learn to love me back?