Missing Mother

6 years ago

I’m going to miss Mother’s Day with my kids again this May, for the second year in a row. Both times the reason is that I need to be on national tour for my debut novel, Girl in Translation: last year for its publication and this year for the paperback release. My boys are seven and four years old, still young enough to love their mommy without reservation or judgment. When they miss me, they miss me with all their little hearts.

It makes me think about my relationship with my own mother, which was more complicated, even from early on. I immigrated from Hong Kong to New York together with my family when I was five years old. We lost all of our money in the move. My family started working in a clothing factory in Chinatown in order to survive, and although I was still in kindergarten, I worked there, too, every day after school.

We lived in an unheated, roach-infested apartment in Brooklyn that was so bitterly cold in the winter that we kept the oven on day and night. It was our only source of heat.

I couldn’t speak a word of English, either, when we first arrived, but I picked it up far more rapidly than my parents could. When I went shopping with my mother, she made me bargain in her stead -– something I absolutely hated. When a merchant cheated us, it was my job to complain.

It was hard for me as a small child to fill an adult’s shoes, but no matter how difficult my early life may have been, my mother’s life was much more so. She was always in the kitchen until late into the night, working on skirts and sashes we’d brought home from the factory to finish. I remember her flexing her fingers, stiff from the cold, in front of the open oven door in order to keep going. There was not a single night in my childhood when my mother went to bed before I did.

I was moved to write this book because of my mother. I wanted to tell her story, and that of many other first-generation immigrants. My mother never really learned to speak English, although she tried her best, and to Americans she comes across as very simple. I wanted people to hear how eloquent, wise and funny she really was in Chinese.

So I wrote the story of eleven-year-old Kimberly Chang and her mother, who emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor. Kimberly, similar to my own experience, quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life -— the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition -— Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself, back and forth, between the worlds she straddles.

In the novel, I wanted to give English-speaking readers a unique experience: to actually become a Chinese immigrant for the course of my novel, to hear Chinese like a native speaker and to hear English as gibberish. I hoped to allow my readers to experience something thousands of immigrants live with every day: what it's like to be intelligent, thoughtful and articulate in your own language -- but to come across as ignorant and uneducated in English. I also wanted to highlight how much a mother could sacrifice for her children.

However, I wondered if I myself appreciated my mother enough. Like my heroine, Kimberly, I, too, had a talent for school. I was accepted to Harvard, and it was there that I decided to become a writer.

A few years after graduation, I fell in love with a Dutch man. I agonized over leaving my mother in New York, but finally, I moved to Holland to marry him and start a family. My mother lived with my brother and his family -- I told myself -- and she and I often disagreed, anyway. And it was true. Maybe because I’d had to take on the adult role so often as a child, or maybe –- as she believed -– I was just born a headstrong, stubborn daughter, my mother and I often clashed.

The funny thing is that last year, when I was again on national tour and about to miss Mother’s Day with my own children, I was asked to write an article on that holiday for the Daily News in New York. In that piece, called “Our Mothers, Ourselves,” I talked about how my mother had gotten lost on the subway when I was a child, and how later in life I had to lose my mother in order to find her again. I wrote:

“We love our mothers so much, we owe them so much, we want so badly to give back to them some of what they have given to us -- and yet we feel the inevitable pull to carve our own space, to find our own way, to drift.

Perhaps the truth, in the end, is that we need to lose our mothers in order to find ourselves. I suppose for me, the great question is: How do we find them again?”

When I wrote that article in May of last year, I didn’t know that my mother already had cancer. We’d just held the book launch in New York City, and my publishing team had brought my mother and family to the event in style. Although my mother never learned to speak English, she understood enough from her seat in the front row to be very proud. Two months later, she was diagnosed, and a few months after that, in October 2010, she passed away. This will be my first Mother’s Day without my mother.

Now, I look back at all of the Mother’s Days I missed with my mother because I was living in Holland. My own boys will be all right. We’re going to have an extra-special celebration when I get back, and my career as a writer is what allows me to be home for them the rest of the time. But my mother had to leave me time and time again because she needed to work for our survival. Even when she brought me with her to the factory, there was no time for us to be together as mother and cub, as we say in Chinese. I can only find solace in the words that I myself wrote a year ago, not knowing how close I was to losing my mother for good:

“So it is for so many mothers and children: When we are apart, we are together, and when we are together, we are apart.”

My mother and I were quite different as individuals and yet we never stopped loving each other. Despite our complicated relationship, I, too, miss her with all my heart. I have no answers as to why life can be both so tragic and so filled with joy. I can only be grateful that this book -– the reason I’m away from my children this Mother’s Day -– was published in the year my mother would pass away, and that my mother lives on in its pages.

Jean Kwok is the author of Girl in Translation, now being discussed in BlogHer Book Club. You can read her blog at JeanKwok.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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