i do not know why i am writing. i cannot, i can't not. every word i write is another word you will not read: perhaps that is why. there is safety in the unseen.
it has been nearly fifteen years. do you know that i used to believe you were dead? do you know that i used to hope that i might meet you in heaven? do you know?
of course you don't. of course i don't.
it is why, when i learned probability has it that you are alive, midnight found me memorizing the dark pine knots that patterned my bedroom walls, eyes wide, pupils dilated, swollen with foolish wishes.
sometimes, i wonder if you ever did the same, and sometimes, i do not want to know. i pretend that you cared, that you cried, when you abandoned me on the streets of Guangzhou. i pretend that you cursed Deng Xiaoping for introducing the one-child policy that forced you to choose between children and abandon your daughter for a son. i pretend and i pretend and i pretend, content to brew my lies and swallow them like honeyed Earl Grey, pretending, yet again, that they do not scald my throat.
and you grow used to the burn, after a time, until you know longer notice. until your lashes cease to weep and your tongue has become numb and you accept the lies you spun as the truth.
but they roil, uneasy waves, in your gut. the tang of bile stings your tongue. and you ignore it.
but still, we wonder; but still i wonder. anything, everything, and this—
which would hurt you more to know? that the woman i call mother is not you, or that the woman i call mother is still you?
because blood, it is nothing, which is to say, everything.
it is agony, it is life, it is the thin line between family and stranger when we are both.
it is all we have left of each other; it is all you have left me. an inheritance of rubies that genetics has liquidated into the yellow of my skin and the salt of my tears and the folds of my eyes: this blood, this pain, this life, this. nothing. everything.
and so i spill it onto the page in words you will not read, in words you cannot read. my fingertips weep scarlet for all to see but you.
i think that the universe is too find of irony.
i think, too, that joy is indebted to sorrow and sorrow entranced by joy: how else would they burn so bright if not through contrast? it is how i ached for another mother when i had the imperfect love of an imperfect woman before me. her flaws made you shine brighter, for i have never known yours, known you.
but which are you, joy or sorrow, Mama?
Mama. how strange that still, it is all i can call you. not Mother, clad in housedresses and formality, or Mom, dressed in jeans and a cotton t-shirt, but Mama, wrapped in the intimacy of childhood.
Mama, we say, when we are young, our vowels tinged with innocence. Mom, we call, when we reach adolescence, shucking innocence and ignorance in our ascent to adulthood. Ma, we whisper, when you are old and so are we. Ma. we shed syllables like snakeskins, becoming something more and something less, letting the letters lie in the dust like the years we've left behind.
Mama, i say, for i am still a child, still your child. there are oceans between us, but you cannot rewrite my DNA the way i cannot change China's one-child policy.
and if i could? what then?
a photo is perched upon my bureau of a family. they occupy an open storefront, its floor lined with wooden pallets upon which sit sacks spilling ruby and golden spices. there is a shy son, fading into the background, while his brother offers a grin and a peace sign. there is a nana and a mother and a daughter, three generations of women. the girl wears a pink shirt with a silver butterfly and a bright, bright smile. she is the good Chinese daughter.
would i have been her? could i have been her?
there is a book, The Fountains of Silence, by a woman named Ruta Sepetys. it is gorgeously written, so painful it’s beautiful, so beautiful it hurts. and there is a single sentence, a single scene. a Spanish mother, to be reunited with a daughter adopted to an American family, is warned that her child is American, so very American. to which she replies, fierce—i do not care. she is my daughter.
and i cried, Mama. i cried. because i would not, could not, be the good Chinese daughter, and if i don't know whether that would matter when it came to love, to loving, and to me.
i suppose i'm asking whether you would love me unconditionally.
what a difficult question for a daughter to ask. and perhaps, it is unfair of me to do so: would i have loved you unconditionally? could i?
and i want to sign this letter properly, to tell you that i forgive you, that i miss you, that i love you, but can you miss what you’ve never known? can you love whom you’ve never known?
i don’t know. i don’t know whether i miss you, or what i perceive you to be, or the ache you left in your place.
Jin-Ping says that she is angry. she blames her own mother for leaving her the way you left me. but how can i blame you for following a law you never set?
and Afrah joked that she had no heart, that she loved no one, and laughing, i protested, but Yoongi!
perception is not person, she responded.
perception is not person. i forgive you, i miss you, but Mama, i cannot love you.
i addressed my mother using the Chinese characters and signed my Chinese name in the English alphabet to emphasize that she is Chinese while i am Chinese-American. my Chinese name also means love, that i am loved, and i would want her to know that. and i do not know whether it's ironic and fitting that the only word of this she could read is 妈妈: Mama. the letter itself was inspired by Ocean Vuong's novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, a letter to his own mother. his will not read his words because she is illiterate, and has passed away; mine will not read my letter because it is written in English, and i have never known her.