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Deborah Shlian

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Books by Deborah Shlian
By Deborah Shlian
Sunday, March 17, 2002

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Recent stories by Deborah Shlian
· The Surfer
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San Francisco, California

The cab ride from the cemetery to Chinatown took Lili more than the five miles. It transported her back in time so that when the driver turned onto Grant Avenue she was ten years old again, playing in the alleys behind restaurants and curio shops. As she stepped from the cab she suddenly remembered how on Chinese New Year when money was plentiful, the older boys would bicycle out to the riding academies in Golden Gate Park, hire horses for three dollars a day and ride back to Chinatown, galloping down this avenue like cowboys. Lili thought it was wonderful and wanted to join them, but her mother would shake her head and say,"san fun meng", the Chinese equivalent of "one foot in the grave".
Even after all these years, the neighborhood looked the same: the Hai Wu Fish Market, the Hong Chun Company where the two Chun sisters produced hand-made Chinese dresses - today more for tourists than locals, Tang Mu's jewelry shop. Even Old Saint Mary's Church was still on the corner of Grant and California, although you could see the new TransAmerica pyramid in the background.
It was on the second story of a three story stucco box near the corner of Grant and Pine above Eu's bakery where Lili was born and spent most of her childhood. On balmy days, the windows would all be open and the apartment would smell of char siu bao (pork filled buns), galai gock (curry puffs) sui gai dahn go (sponge cake) and malai go (steamed egg cakes). But now, when she pushed open the front door, the windows were shut tight, the air still and odorless.
For a moment she stood in the foyer, taking in the emptiness, unsure of where to go. She half-expected to hear her mother's voice, scolding her for being late, glad that she had come. But there was only silence as she moved from room to room. Stepping into the kitchen, Lili envisioned her mother in her apron as a younger woman, anxious to see that her daughter ate a good hot five course meal before heading off to study.
"I'm not hungry."
"Every grain of rice you leave in your bowl will be a tear that you shed before the day is out."
"You're making that up."
"Chinese never lie."
She entered her mother's bedroom. Funny, long before her father died, this had always been her mother's room. Everything reminded Lili of Su-Wei: the hand-crocheted coverlet, the ivory comb, even the wall-paper with the medallion design in pale yellow. She recalled her mother telling her that the ancient Chinese had invented wallpaper and that it wasn't until the 14th century that wallpaper was introduced into Europe. You must always be proud that you were born Chinese.
Lili picked up a bobby pin from the dresser and thought of how each morning she'd stood impatiently as her mother pulled and twisted her thick black hair until she'd formed two tightly plaited pigtails.
Why can't I wear my hair short like the other girls.
You are not like the other girls.
It was a never-ending battle expressed in her growing up years: Am I of my mother's race or am I an American? Her mother speaking Shanghainese, learning only pidgin-English, raising her in the standard of Chinese womanhood, confined within the doctrines of Confucius that her highest reward was to be the matriarch of a large, respectful family. It is for your own good. No one in China dreamed of being unmarried.
The American principles of freedom and independence were taught in grade school. Lili learned that qualities such as individuality, self-expression and analytical thought were the rights of all Americans. I want to choose my own way.
Lili noticed an old rectangular black lacquer box on the night stand. She sat on the bed and picked it up. Although she'd seen it there since she'd been a child, she'd never touched it. No one had told her not to, but somehow she'd sensed this was her mother's special treasure - something she'd brought with her, hand painted with rose and blue-colored swans, all the way from Shanghai.
Opening its hinged lid, Lili discovered within its imperial yellow velvet and satin lining, several old papers, letters and photographs. She recognized her parents' marriage license and their insurance premium booklet, but the letters were all in Chinese which she couldn't read, so she could only wonder at their contents. Her mother had rarely talked of her life in China. But when Lili was nine, she found her mother crying over a letter she'd just received.
Su-Wei told her it had come from the Chinese government. "They say my father is dead," she'd sobbed. "He promised to send for me, but he never did. Now everyone in China is gone."
It was the only time Lili ever recalled her mother crying. After that, Su-Wei unpacked the camphor chest she'd always kept filled with clothes, shoes and other necessities for her eventual return to China and never spoke of her sadness again.
Lili picked through the few photos. There were several she'd never seen before: one of Lili's father in his Sunday suit. Probably brought to Su-Wei's aunt by the old woman who made the match. Lili wondered what her mother felt when she saw this picture for the first time. Did she even think to protest a forced marriage to a man more than twice her age? She picked up a snapshot of her parents standing side by side, not touching, looking directly into the camera, but registering no sense of emotion- just acceptance.
At the bottom of the box was a small snapshot of Su-Wei as a child. She couldn't have been more than ten. Funny, how much she looked like Lili. What was even more striking was her expression - dark eyes radiant, confident, carefree as she held her father's hands. It was also the first time Lili had ever seen a picture of her grandfather. He was handsome, with jet black hair and serious eyes. Su-Wei had told her he was a doctor - a great professor- you can be proud of your ancestors.
For several moments, Lili stared at her mother and grandfather holding hands. Su-Wei was so happy once. Then Lili stood up and began wandering from room to room, running her hands over objects barely remembered: a lace tablecloth, a silk pillowcase, a rosewood chopsticks box. Odd. She had grown up here, but curiously felt no attachment.
Now perhaps she was beginning to understand. She had fled this house the minute Wellesley accepted her because she'd been ashamed of her mother - her old-fashionedness, her reluctance to learn English, her insistence on clinging to the old ways. Lili left because she didn't want to be like Su-Wei the rabbit - so accepting of her joss. Like the half-emptied bottle of pain pills still on the bathroom counter. Or maybe Lili just never appreciated what losing parents and country had meant to Su-Wei.
Lili returned to her mother's bedroom and closed the lacquered box. Sitting down on the bed, she felt in her pocket for the jade locket her mother had given her and held it by the gold chain. She knew the intricately carved gold letters stood for shou, the Chinese symbol for long life and almost laughed at the irony. Her mother had died so young.
But, of course that was not really why Su-Wei kept it so close to her heart all these years. Lili opened the locket and stared for a moment at the tiny portrait of a beautiful Chinese woman. She'd never seen a picture of her grandmother.
Remember, if you are Chinese, you can never let go of China in your mind.
My God, Lili thought recalling her mother's last words, how little she really knew of her roots.
She placed the locket around her neck.
Someday I hope you will return to China for me. I will live in you now.
Oh God, she thought as she reached up and touched her cheek. She looked in the mirror. Only then did she know that the wetness was her own tears, that she was crying as she could never remember crying.
And sobbing, she suddenly understood that she was now all alone in the world.

       Web Site: Deborah Shlian's Medical Mystery/Thrillers

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