How I Came to Appreciate My Chinese Heritage One Christmas

China Narrative
by Pamela Chan Dec 14, 2015

In many ways, my mother and I could not be more different. She was raised in Taiwan and is still very set in the Eastern traditions that she was brought up with, while I am one hundred percent California born and bred. When you compare me to most American-born Chinese, I couldn’t be more ‘wonder bread white.’

Over the last twenty-five years, my mother and I have been like two opposing peas in a pod. We’ve shared contrasting opinions, petty arguments, as well as an array of hurtful words that I, for one, would happily take back in an instant. Our biggest altercation, however, came during the winter I turned thirteen. It was the year I began to slowly embrace my Chinese heritage. It was also the year I learned just how much my mother loved me.

Up until a certain point, my friends were my world. They brought me into a place that my mother couldn’t — a place that was not enriched with piano lessons and countless hours of studying, but instead a space where I could actually be a normal teenager. They were not Chinese, and because of that cultural difference, my mother became, in a sense, inferior.

So when I found out my friends were throwing me a birthday dinner, I almost collapsed in happiness. It meant that I could get out of the typical Chinese Christmas slash birthday dinner with my mother, and actually have a special day that I would remember forever. But as all this wonderful news washed over me, I knew in the back of my mind that Mama Dearest had to come along. There wasn’t a chance that I’d be able to attend alone. And so I began to dread the party.

When I woke up on the morning of my December birthday, my mother was already bustling around in a messy kitchen soaking fungus-like tofu in a bowl, steaming length long fish, and tossing a colorful array of sautéed vegetables into a sizzling pan of crispy noodles.

“Your friends will love,” she said, as she saw me eyeing her delicacies disappointedly. I just stood there and stared.

As I put on my tweed miniskirt and pearls, I was filled with a sense of shame. I didn’t know what my mother had planned, and I was so certain that she was going to ruin this party. And everything else.

We arrived promptly at five — and my mother began taking out boxes and bags of her food and Chinese trinkets. My friends came running out across their long, green lawn, and as we chatted excitedly about the evening’s plans, Mama Chan barged right in, handing everyone a dollar ‘red pocket.’

“Use wisely,” she said with a big smile, as she began trudging across the lawn into the house. There was a stunned silence between me and my friends, and as I rolled my eyes with a weak shrug, we slowly began to follow her into the white-picket-fenced all-American architectural wonder.

Dinner put me into a deeper despair. The dining room was filled with Christmas carols and candles, and in the center of it all, was a table filled with roasted turkey, green beans, and sweet potatoes. My mother’s food sat in between everything else, looking like an oddly put-together inter-continental mess.

After grace was said, my mother began handing out her food, waving her chopsticks saying, “This good,” or “You try.” Everyone’s plates were filled with mashed potatoes and squid or turkey and tofu, and it seemed as if nobody was touching their food except for my mother. She licked her chopsticks and went on in her broken English about how well I was doing in piano or how many As I had gotten that semester. My friends murmured their responses as I sunk deeper and deeper into my chair. Then came time for the fish. She had eaten almost the whole fish and then started to nibble into the cheeks and eye. My friends looked at if they were ready to vomit, and I was quite ready to disappear.

A Chinese taro cake sat next to the chocolate fudge cake my friends had baked. As they sang, the candles went out, and I wished ever so hard for an American life. When presents were handed out, my mother bustled around the room like a Chinese Santa Claus, handing everyone a crumpled package. When she got to me, she said, “Your present too important, we wait until go home.” This was the last straw for me. How could my mother be so embarrassing and uncaring? What had I done to deserve this?

The drive home was quiet. I said nothing, and my mother knew that I was angry. When we got home, I stomped up to my room, slammed the door, and cried like I was a little girl again. My mother came up during my sobbing and said, “You want American life, I know.”

She handed me a neatly wrapped package. It was a beautiful gold locket I had been eyeing for months. Inside she had put a picture of herself on one side and my friends on the other. She put her hand to my heart, “But in here, you always be Chinese. Don’t have shame in who you are, don’t have shame in life.”

Even though I didn’t agree with her then, I knew that she understood all I had suffered through that birthday dinner. She knew how much shame I had in her being there. But it wasn’t until some time later, that I was willing and able to truly appreciate her gift and lesson. For Christmas that year, my mother had given up three months salary to buy that locket. My friends told me later, her pride in asking them for their picture to put inside. And even though I couldn’t appreciate it then, that birthday menu had contained my favorite Chinese delicacies, ones that were terribly tasking to serve and make, especially for a constantly busy middle-aged woman juggling work, family, and a long list of other things.

I had to realize that my incredibly ‘Chinese’ mother wasn’t out to ruin my life. She was there to love it even more. All I had to do was love life just the same. Chinese, American, and everything in between.

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