Excerpted from “Joan Is Okay” by PEN/Hemingway winner Weike Wang ’11, S.M. ’14, S.D. ’17, and reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
The average Joe in America is expected to move 11.4 times in his life. Who knows about the average Jane. From Wichita, we moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania. From Scranton to Bay City, Michigan. More town than city, Bay City was the last place we would live together as a family, and for only two years. Then counting my moves within Massachusetts, from dorm to dorm and later to New York for work, I was right under the average at 11.
During my childhood and adolescence, we moved because of my father. His dream enterprise was in construction, like an enterprise that sold tarps, specifically the waterproof tarps used to cover unfinished sites. But wherever he tried to start this business, no bank would lend him money for it and the enterprise would fail. He could look suspicious: gaunt cheeks; extra-small, inset eyes; a few very long whiskers that sprouted out around his mouth. Whenever the business failed, he would wash his hands of the state. Time to start anew, he would say, time to break new ground.
My father was an optimist. For the number three, he would touch his index finger to his thumb, the same hand gesture as for the A-OK.
The only business routes available to him were to open a Chinese restaurant or convenience store, and neither he was interested in. There wasn’t enough time (or money) to go back to school for an MBA, which was where he thought the real problem lay, not in his appearance but the lack of American degrees. He took on odd jobs, washing dishes at restaurants, delivering newspapers, landscaping, stocking store shelves, while my mother cleaned houses. Average people, my parents. Who raised two average kids.
But as average parents, they still differed in small ways. I could have told my hospital office mate Reese this memory of my father, but he wouldn’t have understood.
A Chinese saying: Hitting is love, berating is love. Had I explained that to Reese, he wouldn’t have known what I meant. He would have overreacted and judged me. What kind of love is that? What kind of parents did you have?
When my father was truly angry about something, he could berate me for hours but afterward offer to buy me ice cream. My mother could berate for hours too, but no ice cream afterward, and while berating, she could multitask, she could move swiftly through a room to collect a large portion of my things. She would put my things in a plastic bag and double knot the bag. Then she would put the bag on a high shelf. In hindsight, she was trying to fortify something in me. A person shouldn’t sentimentalize or believe anything to be precious. But in a month, there would be two or three bags on that shelf, and inevitably all of my things would be gone.
I hadn’t been an easy child. Quiet, a recluse, and disastrously clumsy. I spilled things like cough syrup as I was taking them, the red dye flooding the dingy carpet of our rental and impossible to get out. We couldn’t tell the landlord so my mother put a rug over it, after which I was berated, then had all my things put into bags.
Mostly my mother wanted to know why I couldn’t be a happier child. Why are you looking at me like that? she would ask, and I hadn’t looked at her in any way. But there we were in a supermarket aisle, across any table, in a car just her and me, my mother in the driver’s seat, speeding past cornfields, miles of flat land, glaring not at me but the road ahead.
What look? I would ask.
That look that I owe you something, that I’ve wronged you in some way.
A pessimist, a constant speculator. Had she known what America was like, she might not have immigrated. Had she not been an immigrant, she might have enjoyed being a mom. Raising you took off half my life, she would say. You’re living proof of where that half went.
(Chemists know this already. All elements on the periodic table decay and in one half life, half the original element, called the parent nucleus, decays into a different element, or the daughter nucleus. No son nucleus, of course. No son could ever be a by-product of radioactive decay.)
Hitting is love: The last day I was in China, I tried to give my mother a hug and she recoiled, but then she brought one hand over my shoulder and started pounding my back as if I were choking. I pounded hers in return and she continued to pound mine. We hacked a little and this went on for a few seconds. It reminded me of chest compressions, the ones that you have to do during codes. You must always stay calm. But you must also be willing to break all the person’s ribs in order to keep her alive.
During my overnight shift, a new number with a Connecticut area code texted me with the sentence, This is your mother. I ignored the text, because of so much spam these days and my mother was in China.
I was at the foot of a bed of an 80-year-old man whom we were trying to resuscitate but who ultimately could not be. Ten years older than my father and I had watched him die because I had been watching his cardiac monitor, but with machines, there was always a paradox, if I’d been watching this monitor, had I really seen him die? Afterward, I did the death exam. Check the eyelids and the pulse, close the jaw. No one cried. The family wasn’t here. Then I sat down in the nurses’ bay, at one of their computers, to note the time of death and to start the postmortem care. The body had to be bagged and taken away, the area disinfected and remade for the next person. During this lull, my phone rang again with the same number and I picked up. It was 2:00 a.m.
This is your mother, said a voice that sounded a lot like hers. It’s late but I need someone to talk to. I’m having terrible jet lag.
My mind made the quick switch out of hospital mode and into real life. It was as simple as switching languages, from English to Chinese, the latter in which my parents and I had always communicated.
But your number, I said. It says you’re calling from Connecticut.
Which is where I am. Why else would I have jet lag?
Greenwich? You’re currently in Greenwich, Connecticut?
Am I cutting out or something? she asked. Am I not coming through clear enough?
Very clear, I said.
Your brother. He coerced me. He dangled plane tickets in front of my face.
I asked a few more questions. When did she get in? Why had no one told me? How long was she staying? The winter? She was here to spend the rest of winter? Why had she not told me? How did she know that I was awake?
I’m telling you right now, she said. And you are awake, aren’t you?
The other questions she dismissed as logistics, for me to confirm with someone else, like Fang. She just needed someone to chat with, complaining that everyone in Connecticut, everyone in this small tiny state, was asleep.
To chat is to liáo tiān, or literally “to gab about the sky.” For the past 18 years, calls with my mother were purely information driven, and even when we lived in the same house, it was not like her to find me just to chat.
If you don’t chat with anyone, Mom, if you just lie perfectly still, then you’ll fall asleep.
No, I won’t. And I’m not tired, she said. She announced that she would kick off our liáo tiān with a slew of nice things. All children like to hear nice things and all adults are children at heart.
Joan-na, I would’ve moved in with you, but you don’t have any kids. I would’ve chatted with you before, but I didn’t want to waste your time. More mothers should learn to let go, and what I hoped for you was a busy life. Now that you have that and a successful career, you should thank me for being your mother and not a burden on your life.
After I thanked her, she said that I’d matured, a second nice thing. Parents run out of steam, immigrant parents especially, and once Fang had met all her expectations, she feared that I, being second born, would be the one to rebel. Horror stories. The youngest child squanders her chances to become an entitled brat and to gnaw on the bones of the old, which was the literal phrase. But thank God you didn’t become one of those and now make your own money. A woman must make her own money, because without money there is no power, and a woman must have power.
I looked at the clock on my monitor. It was 2:23 a.m. Then 2:24 a.m.
She asked if I had heard her.
I said that I had. But she had told me all this before.
For as long as I could remember, all through childhood, really. Her fear that I would not mature paired with her hope that I would someday have power. Because she didn’t have any power and being an immigrant mother was a half-life.
Forget I said those things, my mother now said. They were said in times of duress, you have to understand. Moving forward, I’d like to be there for you, more especially since I’m here, so feel free to call me anytime, even if I don’t pick up. Leave a message is what I mean and I’ll get back to you within the hour. All in all, I’m grateful for you so let’s continue to engage.
I didn’t know my mother could talk like this and assumed that it was related to my father.
I asked her if she was grieving.
Am I grieving? Is that really the question you’re asking?
I said it was just a question. Grieving was a necessary process and there were many waiting-room brochures about it.
She told me that I needed to work on my liáo tiān skills.
What are you doing tomorrow? I asked.
Seeing the rest of your brother’s house. She yawned and I told her to go back to bed.
She said she couldn’t until we’d hung up and she couldn’t hang up until I did. In order to provide more support, she’d promised herself to stop hanging up on her kids. So, if I could hang up, that would be ideal.
But I don’t want to hang up either. It’s not very filial.
You have my permission.
I can’t, I said, worried that my hand would immediately fall off after I put the phone down.
Why would that happen to your hand, Joan-na? Are you the undead?
Humor was a coping mechanism, said the wellness brochures, but they never mentioned how long after a death in the family was it appropriate to start using the word dead. When I still couldn’t hang up on my mother, she told me to count to three with her and at three, we ended the call at the same time.
Afterward, the nurse next to me, who had been sitting next to me the whole time, said that she didn’t know that I spoke Chinese. I apologized out of reflex and when she looked confused, I apologized for confusing her.
No, it’s cool that you do, she said.
There were times my classmates would ask me to translate some dumb English phrase into Chinese just to prove to them that I could, then after hearing me speak Chinese, just to say that I sounded foreign.
I waited for the nurse to do that, but of course she didn’t, since she was a good person and a good nurse, and we were both adults.
Copyright © 2022 by Weike Wang. All rights reserved.