“First of all, Susan, thank you so much for your help.”
The voice from the receiving end of Walkman tape is accented, soft and timid. I clutch my headphones connecting to the clunky machine, my heart thumping in my disbelieving ears. I’d been rummaging through the dusty confines of my garage for an empty tape to record my Spanish oral essay, but I never expected to find something like this.
“I’m still have… trouble,” the voice continues quietly. “People cannot understand me. I can’t impress myself.”
Express, I automatically think.
I listen for a few more moments. The voice is barely above a whisper, laced with uncertainty. The woman on the other end does not sound like my mother, nothing like the headstrong woman who fearlessly honks at a reckless driver and firmly reprimands my brother for eating too many dumplings.
But the lilts, the accents–it’s unmistakably Mom.
It’s also an English lesson, I suddenly realize, probably when she was a graduate student at UC Irvine. “On my first day of classes, I didn’t understand a single thing the professor said,” she told me many times. “I just copied everything down and used a dictionary later to figure it out.”
The rest of her story I could recite in my head: she’d received a scholarship to attend one of the best universities in China before coming to UC Irvine, the only one in her class to leave the Shandong province. She came to America with broken English and $1,000. She persevered, she sacrificed, she triumphed.
But these stories she relentlessly repeated seemed like a frayed memory, a faded Polaroid, a nondescript movie. I’d never even seen a picture of my mother in her younger years, no evidence to corroborate the challenges she had to endure to get here, no face to tack onto the image. To me (and I know it’s a selfish thought), it almost seemed like her life began when I was born; her earliest photographs showed us cradled together in the hospital delivery room. The shock of hearing her fragility on the Walkman tape, recorded long before I was born, shattered my detachment with my mother’s reality. Was that really my mother speaking on the tape?
For the first time, I felt her past shake itself from the cobwebs of myth and emerge alive. Awed, I let my newly contoured mind embrace this novel thought, putting myself in her shoes. How could I survive on $1,000 in a foreign land that had previously been so hostile to the Chinese? How could I dare to leave my parents and brother behind into a world filled with uncertainty, with my future bearing an equally prominent question mark?
It’s so easy to take a snapshot of my mother right now, single out her constant grumbling for me to study, and see her as that typical Chinese parent whose appraisals of college-bound kids are numerically evaluated. But I now understand that I can’t separate my mother’s past from who she is today. Her eyes have seen far more devastating sights, her patience pushed to painful limits, her strength roughened, sharpened, and defined. Each one of those experiences constructs the woman I see before me today, and someday the knowledge of these experiences will shape the person I’ll become, the person my future daughter might see me as. And with that someday, I hope that I can wield that determined resolve, emotional strength, and unwavering compassion my mother carries every day to guide me along the way.