Mom doesn’t know I’m going to Taiwan with my boyfriend next week.
For anyone who is the child of Asian immigrants, that’s a big fucking deal. First, friends of Asian immigrants would ask, what are you doing not traveling without your parents? What do you mean, you’re not going to visit relatives? What’s it like to not pack an extra suitcase full of jumbo-sized multivitamins and tins of Danish cookies?
And the answer to all of that is, “eh, it’s complicated.”
“Once you get into Hong Kong, you're having dinner with Miao Ai-Yi,” mom told me in 2007. “She has two children, slightly older than you. I called her, and she will be coordinating with you to meet at a restaurant.”
I am meeting an aunt and two cousins I have never met before. I remember my mom saying offhand that she has a sister who lives in Hong Kong. I don’t ever remember them communicating directly.
“And there’s something else,” Mom says. “You must pay for dinner.”
Why have I never met them before?
“I know, Ma —”
Why doesn’t mom talk to any of her siblings? She’s supposed to be the youngest of eleven or twelve siblings. Wouldn’t she communicate regularly with at least one of them?
Mom looks at me, dead in the eyes. “I’m serious. Pay for the bill.”
I’m going to assume this is the part of the story where all the Asian folks are like, “well, duh,” and the Miami folks be like “bro it’s a bill what the fuck lol.”
Essentially it boils down to something we call “losing face,” and it boils down to this: you can’t owe someone else a favor. If someone owes you a favor, you must repay the favor, or else you look bad. And when you look bad, it gives the other person leeway to talk massive amounts of shit about you.
Like paying for a check at dinner, for example. You fight — FIGHT — to pay the bill at dinner because you’re showing how gracious you are. Nevermind every single person at the table rather not spend USD 300 for the five-course dinner for a meal of seven.
This is ingrained in every Chinese person, every child of Chinese immigrants. Imagine my surprise when I was at a Chinese restaurant with eight non-Asian friends the first year living in Miami. “I got this,” I exclaimed, flashing my credit card once we got the bill for dinner.
“Sweet! Thanks, Ernie!” said the table.
Twenty minutes later, I’m fuming in the passenger seat as we’re driving home. “I don’t get why you’re so pissed off,” Kareem said as I pouted. “You offered to pay for the meal.”
THAT’S NOT THE POINT, I yelled.
Miami took some adjusting.
I take my friend Bel with me to the restaurant in Hong Kong. Bringing Bel to dinner makes sense: she speaks Cantonese, I speak broken Mandarin. She is female, hopefully minimizing the “why aren’t you single?” questions.
The dinner goes mostly okay. I speak in English to my newly discovered cousins, Simon and Carol. One is an architect. They seem nice, and I wonder what life would have been like if I had a relationship with them growing up. I speak Mandarin to my aunt. I tell her my mother, father, and sister are well. I do not bring up that my sister is severely mentally ill. I try my best not to ask about what my maternal grandmother is like, merely mentioning offhand that I never met her. They do not take the bait, and my curiosity grows.
When we are wrapping up the dinner, I present to them my gift: a box of Ghirardelli chocolates bought at SFO. They thank me. We all know they will not eat said chocolates, and there’s a 75% chance they’re handed off to the next people who need spur-of-the-moment gifts. I know this because my parents did this with the boxes of Almond Roca they received from their friends and stored in a back cupboard in the kitchen.
Bel leans over and whispers to me. “Give me the card; I’ll cut the waiter off at the pass.” I micro-nod, hand my card to her, and she excuses herself to the restroom.
It is time.
By the time the waiter comes and announces that a card has been accepted, the ritual has started. There is feigned shock, mock outrage. A literal tug of war over the credit card. It is a whooping crane dance of pouting and negotiations. Someone may have fainted; I don’t remember the details in the commotion. I don’t know who actually paid for the bill, but does it matter? There are promises that debts will be repaid, the next time someone is in Hong Kong or America.
I look over at the group of ten, three tables over. They are doing the same thing.
Now multiply that by all the number of relatives I have in Taiwan unknown to me. All the visits, the boxes of Ghirardelli, the saving of faces instead of being a tourist. All the issues, bubbling to the surface: no, seriously, why doesn’t Mom communicate with anyone from her side of the family? Why does she refuse to visit Taiwan, unless I specifically go with her? What are those things that are so unspoken in the first place?
What if everything dad said about mom was right all along?
My American buddy TC who has lived in Taiwan for decades and knows the scoop knows that telling Mom about my upcoming trip is probably not the wisest choice. “If and when she finds out, feign concern for her health or something. Long flights. High crime. Rabid DPP members, that kind of thing.”
None of that will explain not answering the phone as she calls every day. The best solution I’ve come up with is telling her I will be traveling, but to Japan. I’m hoping to lean in on some of that internalized racism.