Recording My Audiobook Brought Me Closer to My Immigrant Mother
"I Was Imagining Her as She Had Spent Her Lifetime Imagining Me"
At the end of April, I flew to New York to record the audiobook of my memoir Reading with Patrick. I’d agreed to do it for reasons I didn’t understand. I am an inveterate mumbler, and my voice jerks between almost manly lows and valley-girl-ish highs, as if I can’t decide how I want to sound; and, as my brother pointed out in his toast at my wedding, multiple dentists have remarked upon my “excess saliva,” which makes me slur my words and drool, and requires them to use that vacuum-suction thing frequently.
But the idea of going to New York City excited me and, spontaneously, I’d asked my mother to join me. We could make a trip out of it, I proposed.
“Don’t you have friends there you want to see?” she asked suspiciously, in Mandarin.
The word “friends” lingered meaningfully. My mother and I had always wished to be closer, aspiring sentimentally to our picture of Western mothers and daughters—affectionate, voluble, equal. Growing up, I blamed her, never myself, for what we’d failed to achieve.
“I want to spend time with you,” I said. I put my arm around her, and she appeared confused.
In the recording studio, I would discover I had every reason to be afraid. Reading aloud is physically vulnerable. The act of writing, to which I had attributed a quality of bravery, now seemed safe, self-insulating. The German microphone picked up every possible bodily noise: stomach grumbling, congested nostrils, sneezing, swallowing, smacking, clacking, gulping, burps that you think you’ve swallowed.
The first words that I would speak into the microphone were my dedication: “To Hwa-Mei and Ming-Shang Kuo,” I read, “with love and gratitude.”
Then I turned to the window through which I saw Brian, the sound engineer, and Scott, the director, and said, “Hopefully, this is the only page they read.”
The book is not about my parents, but there is a pivotal scene, some 70 pages away, in which they—with feverish, gesticulating, manic anger—issue the singular condemnation sure to bring every filial Asian child to tears: you’re not filial.
Scott’s voice, low and unhurried, now came through the headset: “You can go ahead whenever you’re ready,” he said. “You’ll be great.”
I cleared my throat. My residual shyness, which I’d spent a lifetime trying to stamp out, returned. I read a page.
“How did that sound?” I asked, uncertain, voice suddenly high.
“Sounded good,” Scott said, cheerfully, encouraging. “But how did you say the word rural?”
“Rural,” he said, effortlessly.
“Rural,” I said, tripping over the consonants, wondering if it was an intrinsically difficult word or if I’d somehow, in spite of my American accent, inherited some limitation from my parents.
As it turned out I pronounced all sorts of words wrong. Clapboard, Chicago, default. Scott’s manner of correction was kind, always beginning with “I’ve always thought it was pronounced like…”
I remembered suddenly a whole childhood of correcting my parents.
“Jesus Crisis!” my dad would shout, reading the newspaper, disgruntled by some item.
“You mean Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus Christ!” he’d say, still shouting.
The pleasure of listening to an audiobook, or so I’d read in my brief attempts to research how to do this thing, is that it reminds you of being read aloud to as a child. But I have no recollection of that. My parents didn’t read to me, afraid that I would adopt their accent. They took me to the public library and then left me alone. Reading took on its own power. For me the pleasure was, in part, that it existed in a realm free from their control. They abstractly approved of it—books—yet had no actual idea of what books to recommend.
I forged my own canon. I read a lot of black writers who opened me up to racial consciousness and taught me about American history. Reading facilitated my first encounter with the Mississippi Delta, where outsiders, especially student radicals, had poured in during the Civil Rights Movement. I’d grown up in southwestern Michigan, and the farthest south my family had gone was Chicago’s Chinatown, where my parents would eat meals in wordless, homesick frenzy.
“I’ve shown these scenes to my friends. My non-Asian friends tell me they sound crazy; my Asian friends say they sound familiar.”
After a morning of recording, I got to the big scene: I was now teaching in the Delta, a place starved for young professionals—and I had just told my parents that I wanted to postpone law school and stay in Arkansas as a teacher.
Shocked and aggrieved, my parents lashed out at me. My mother says, You’ve gotten really fat here. She notices that all the other teachers who stayed here were in couples—didn’t I notice? She tells me I’m going to remain single if I stay—nobody wants to marry Mother Teresa. She tells me that other Taiwanese and Chinese kids make money, study science and computers, why couldn’t I be normal? Do I think I’m better than them? Do I think I’m special because I want to help people? She’s helped me all my life, so has my dad. She cries. My dad cries too. We are all crying, in public, on the porch of a bed and breakfast. It is very intense. They beg me to leave. They do a little self-violence, my mother banging her head against the back of her chair and my father slapping his face. (Recoiling from how these latter gestures appeared on the page, I took them out of later drafts.)
I’ve shown these scenes to my friends. My non-Asian friends tell me they sound crazy; my Asian friends say they sound familiar.
When I wrote the dialogue, I’d thought primarily in terms of how my mother had made me feel. Her fury. Her disappointment. Her obliviousness to American parental approaches to building self-esteem.
But reading her part aloud was like a role-playing exercise designed to teach me the validity of another’s emotions. Most of all, I felt her fear: Her fear that she couldn’t spot one Asian person there, nor one Asian restaurant. That the life I wanted to lead would only disappoint me. There were few people in their twenties where I lived, and she feared I would be lonely. That I would stay in the Delta, in this forgotten corner of America, and myself get forgotten.
My mother had not said any of this. But then, she often said she was “not good at talking.”
Later that afternoon, my mother called to ask if I was done for the day. I said yes, I was already walking back. As I approached our hotel, I was surprised to see her diminutive figure, in a floppy hat, waving wildly when she spotted me.
It had been 12 years since that fight, and a lot had changed. She had gotten older. Her eyes were disintegrating: black spots danced in front of her; thinking she was seeing flies, she’d try to wave them away. “We need to get this checked out,” I said, anxious. “It’s just age,” she replied dismissively. After working full time for some four decades, she had finally retired, but almost immediately, she took on new duties: chief among them, looking after her mother-in-law, 95, who moved in with her and my father.
A defect of Chinese culture, definitely sexist, is the expectations that families place on the daughter-in-law—clean for the mother-in-law, cook for her, live with her, and eventually, help her die peacefully. You don’t get praised for doing this; you don’t get props; you’re not really considered a “good person” who makes noble sacrifices. You’re just doing your duty. So my mother was doing hers.
“Take care of yourself, or you can’t take care of other people,” she said to me often. As radically as I imagined my own choices, it seemed plausible that I had simply transferred her intensity of devotion to the private sphere to that of the public.
And I had changed. I’d gotten married. My parents, in addition to being surprised that a man found me attractive, were relieved that I’d conceded to a conservative institution to which they belonged. More, my husband grew up in Taiwan, their native country. Around him, my mother speaks almost exclusively in Mandarin; my father, whose English is excellent, joins in, mostly to show off his memory of Chinese poetry. Suddenly, the dinner table whizzes with Chinese puns, Chinese proverbs, Chinese history. “Translate for her,” my parents both tell him, referring to me in the third person. I am startled by their knowledge, by their fluency, and then ashamed. It is embarrassing to realize, in my mid-thirties, the cruelty in my assumption that I should speak primarily in English with my parents, rather than their native tongue.
And yet this is what they had wanted for me—to be cruel. English was king. For them, in the 80s and in the Midwest, nobody ever used the term “Asian American.” It had been either-or: your kids must give up X so they can be Y. If that meant your kids would look down on you, underestimate what you know, grow distant, fine—that was part of the bargain. That was the sacrifice. Immigrant parents nurtured aggression against them as an act of love.
A nasty kind of child might say to them: You should’ve taught us your stories, your language, your history. For awhile, in my late twenties especially, I was that child. But what could they have done? In Taiwan, my husband would later explain to me, political consciousness was dissent, dissent was punished. Becoming an intellectual was dangerous. Going into politics was dangerous. And you couldn’t even speak in your native tongue in school. My mother’s tongue, Taiwanese, was banned in schools by the Nationalists who came from China in 1949. So they didn’t know how to talk about that history.
“That was the sacrifice. Immigrant parents nurtured aggression against them as an act of love.”
But when I brought up activists who got jailed in Taiwan, my mother got agitated. “Troublemakers,” she said. Things were bad but not that bad, she insisted. And she was disturbed that Taiwanese education today had swung so far the other way, seeking to “recover” its native history of indigenous people, and of being colonized for four centuries by a series of empires.
“That teaching of history—” my parents would say, affronted by these new developments—“is politically motivated.”
“True,” I reply, “But so was your history.” And we reach a standstill, not able to even agree on what history they would have taught me if they had decided to do so.
When I had proposed the trip to my mother, she’d been reluctant. She said she was tired and had a lot of things to do. But this was exactly why I wanted her to come. She had been working too hard around the house. She wasn’t taking walks. She wasn’t singing to herself, like she often did. She had a beautiful voice when she sang: she could hear a tune and sing it back. This gift had accompanied her when she scrubbed floors, chopped vegetables, or washed clothes. Now she did all these things, without singing. “Your mother’s heroic,” my husband had said to me once, out of nowhere. His word choice was perfect, and I immediately felt guilty—I was the writer, why hadn’t I thought of that word?
How was your day? I asked when we met on the sidewalk.
She laughed to herself, refreshed. She’d gone to Central Park, with her sister, who had come up from Philadelphia and gotten us a hotel using her points. They’d found a pond with large fish—she spread her arms to indicate how big—and a rock strewn with turtles sunning themselves. And it was all free.
We had dinner and then proceeded to our room. The three of us, my mother, her sister, and I were sharing a room with two beds. My mother, upon entering the room, had immediately announced she’d sleep with my aunt, so that I could have the other bed to myself. “You’re working,” she said. “Your work is the most important.”
I protested that no, as my elders, they should take turns sleeping alone, and I should be the one sharing, but—upon looking at the size of the bed—I didn’t protest as long as I should have.
“Are you going to take a shower?” she asked. My mother felt passionately about taking a shower at night.
“You have to take one, the air’s so dirty. Come on.”
I refused again, and she shrugged, which had caught me off guard. I’d expected her to keep nagging, and was almost disappointed by her having backed off so quickly. When I was little, I recalled, she would take me into the shower to wash my hair. I’d press my face into her stomach, the two of us naked, squeezing my eyes so that the shampoo would not get into my eyes.
We turned out the lights and my aunt fell asleep quickly, snoring. My mother was rustling, turning over, restless. I was surprised to hear, in her sounds, my own. This was an intimacy I hadn’t expected.
“Meimei,” she said, the Mandarin word for little sister, what she had always called me. “Don’t think too much, go to sleep.”
“Okay,” I said. “I won’t think too much, don’t worry.”
But lying in bed, I kept thinking. I could remember everything, every fight we ever had. In high school, I’d shown her a magazine that my close friend’s mother, a therapist and painter, had given me—a woman with whom, I’d told her, with a daughter’s cruelty, I had great conversations.
“Why is it called that?” my mother asked, studying the cover, a cartoon whose humor escaped us. I said I didn’t know; it was called The New Yorker but not all the writing seemed to be about New York.
Her eye drifted to the subscription information: in capital letters, the name of my friend’s mother. No husband’s name, just hers, alone. My mother studied this detail jealously, disbelievingly. Then she asked, abruptly, if Sarah’s mother hired a cleaning lady. I said, yes. A few weeks later, as we argued about whether I had studied for a test, she hurled the magazine at me, shouting, “I don’t have a cleaning lady.”
For the past couple years, I have lived an ocean away from her, and the filial guilt has started to eat away at me. As a concession to my husband’s academic career, I’d left the United States, gave up a career in legal aid, and placed my California bar license in “temporary suspension.” Because academic jobs are scarce, we have tacitly agreed to prioritize his career.
Since then, as I fumble around in a foreign language, relying on his connections and language ability, I have felt a profound kind of loss, an unmooring, a sense of being compromised somehow. I can glimpse for the first time what she might have felt coming to a different country, though my experience is more privileged. When I mention to her in passing that my husband cooked dinner while I was taking a nap, something that happens more often than I’d like to admit, she wants to hear me tell the story again.
Back in the studio, Scott was helping me enunciate words that I had swallowed, and read with the right flow of a sentence.
“Try to say it like this,” he said. Then he read the line smoothly, with an expert confidence, transforming it into a musical phrase.
“Okay,” I said. “How was I saying it?”
Every household has legends that come at a person’s expense. Our two legends: my delayed speaking and my brother’s early speaking. “She just couldn’t say one word that made sense,” my parents say, laughing, nostalgically, in front of dozens of cousins, at weddings, on holiday gatherings. My brother, in contrast, was a wunderkind—speaking in marvelously complete sentences, translating my nonsense-language for everyone to understand, and frustrating teachers with his spew of questions. By 13, he was bringing home trophies from speech tournaments across the state, and in our household, the mantle swelled with his tall, wonderful prizes, forming a minor altar, that, like the false idols of pagans, reflected back greed, hope, and uncertainty.
As I sat in front of the microphone, trying to untwist my words, it dawned on me where these legends came from. Of course. My parents must have fretted that they were somehow responsible for my garbled speech. When I learned to speak coherently, their anxiety must have relaxed into relief, my defect now charming. And my brother’s gifts—to comprehend, to translate, to speak—must have appeared, in light of their limitations, miraculous. He was unmarred, proof that they had done nothing wrong.
Our last day in New York, I proposed stopping by the lobby of my publisher, magnificently filled with books like the first edition of Lolita. And, I suggested to her, she could meet my editor briefly. “Oh no,” she said, in English, looking fearful. “I won’t know what to say,” she said, switching to Mandarin. “I’ll say the wrong thing.”
“You’ll know,” I replied in Mandarin, “don’t be so hard on yourself.” I had been making an effort lately to speak in Mandarin, even though I could guess how I must sound: bad accent, full of grammar mistakes. Recently my parents broke out laughing at some error I’d made. “Wait, what? What did I say wrong?” I demanded.
“You can say”—now I switched to English—“that you’re happy to meet her and heard great things.”
My mother took a picture of the lobby, properly stunned, and I explained some of the books. “You’ve seen that movie,” I said, pointing to Sophie’s Choice, “with Meryl Streep.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, making the connection. I continued to examine the books, but after a moment, she sat on a bench.
It was strange to see her still, motionless, she who constantly twisted her body into necessary shapes—climbing onto the counter to dust a tall window or kneeling down to the bottom cabinet, searching for a special pan. When she scrubbed the kitchen floor, she got down on her knees, on all fours. My father, my brother, and I worked at the dinner table, on math. Often it was she who initiated these sessions, wanting him to help us get ahead. As she crawled under the table to wipe down the dirtiest part of the floor, where the remains of our dinner lay, we lifted our feet.
In the few precious hours she’d stolen for herself, she tried out new projects. She tried to teach herself Japanese, thinking she could translate. She announced that she was going to make greeting cards. She scribbled away attempts at detective novels. She told me she wanted to learn—don’t tell your dad, she said, he’ll say it’s silly—how to draw cartoons. She thought about opening a Subway franchise, but she would use fresher ingredients. She experimented with writing songs, humming to herself melodies she’d created.
“I wanted to tell her that I would give up all the English that I’d learned, and all the fluency I’d attained, and all the poems that I knew by heart, if it meant that she could complete just one of her creative dreams.”
When my editor emerged, smiling, my mother instantly stood up. She stepped forward. She said, in very good English, “I’m happy to meet you, I’ve heard great things.”
We talked about the beautiful spring weekend. We’d gone to the Cloisters, seen several cousins, and gone to a great Japanese restaurant. Then my editor asked about the audiobook. “Did you bring your mother there?” she asked.
My face froze awkwardly. “Oh,” I said “No.”
Somehow, in my preoccupation each day recording, it had totally slipped my mind to bring my mother to the studio. I felt a stab of mournful regret—she would have liked to see it.
It was this kind of forgetful selfishness, a single-minded occupation with my own work, that my mother had nurtured in me. Meanwhile, if I mention to her some of her old projects, she says she hasn’t thought about them in years. Was it because, I wondered now, she wanted to forget what she hadn’t completed, or was it that she was simply too busy to bother remembering?
I grasped now that my desire to read and write—to conquer English without having to speak out loud—had been a weapon and fortress, a way to master my assimilation, to surpass my family, and to fill the void where stories ought to have been. In my persistent desire to create, I was my mother. I wanted to tell her that I would give up all the English that I’d learned, and all the fluency I’d attained, and all the poems that I knew by heart, if it meant that she could complete just one of her creative dreams.
When we walked out, I told my mother, in Mandarin, how sorry I was that I didn’t think to take her to the studio. She waved her hand and said she saw the picture of it that I took, that was good enough, what would she have done there? The park had fresh air! And I relaxed—she didn’t seem to care at all. But already I couldn’t stop myself from picturing her sitting where I sat, in front of the large German microphone, with a project more glamorous than mine, perhaps singing a song that she wrote herself. I was imagining her as she had spent her lifetime imagining me: full of projects that needed to be realized.
There she is now, looking through the window, at the nodding, encouraging faces, and hearing her voice played back at her.
Michelle Kuo’s Reading With Patrick is available now from Random House.