Chi ku. In Mandarin, it means “to eat bitter”—to sacrifice and go through great hardships. My grandparents always added a second part: that one eats bitter in order to taste sweet.
I was born in Shanghai, China. My early memories were happy ones. I lived with my Nai Nai and Ye Ye, my grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side. They had a one-room apartment in the heart of the bustling Huangpu District that was the gathering place for all their grandchildren. I was the youngest and spent my days helping Nai Nai wrap delicate dumplings and watching Ye Ye read books until my cousins finished school and came home to play.
We lived in very tight quarters. My grandparents’ apartment barely fit a bed, a dresser, a small table, and a bamboo mat. Kitchen and washroom facilities were in the hallway and shared among a dozen families. When my parents first got married, they lived in the same room as Ye Ye and Nai Nai, their beds separated by only a curtain. When I was born, they moved out, to another apartment down the hall.
For most of my childhood in Shanghai, my mother lived away from home. She was a student at the same university where my Ye Ye taught, studying for a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in English language and literature. Our neighbors spoke of my mother with awe. Going to college was exceptionally rare in those days. My mother had been in elementary school when the Cultural Revolution started and all schools ceased operation. Her mother—my other grandmother, Wai Po—smuggled books and taught my mother and her sister by candlelight.
It was a testament to Wai Po’s persistence that both of her daughters tested into university just after the Cultural Revolution ended, despite their having no formal schooling beyond elementary school. They each had to beat out millions of others who vied for a small number of coveted college openings.
It was expected that university students lived on campus. So I saw my mother every other weekend.
Once, she’d been away for longer. When she came home, I didn’t know what to say to her.
Nai Nai urged me to give her a hug. “Ask your mother how her studies are,” she whispered to me.
“How are your studies?” I said.
My mother was not one for hugs or small talk. She held me at arm’s length.
“Duo Duo’s hair is so long,” she said to Nai Nai, using my nickname, which was conceived out of irony. “Duo Duo” means “too many” and was a common moniker for children in families that had many offspring. I was born shortly after the start of China’s one-child policy, so I was destined to be the only child. “Duo Duo” didn’t mean that I was one too many, but that I was the only one to embody the many ambitions everyone had for me.
“I’m going to cut it tonight. She looks better with short hair.” My mother turned to me. I had a cold and was trying to suppress a cough. “Stop coughing. It will make your asthma flare up.”
That night, we were eating Nai Nai’s steamed fish when my chest started tightening. I started coughing and soon couldn’t catch my breath. Nai Nai grabbed my inhaler and told me to take two puffs. This was the routine. We tried the inhaler first, then she turned on a machine and put a mask over my face. If the attack was very bad, I’d swallow three pills, then put on the mask again.
“Isn’t that too much medication?” my mother called out. “Shouldn’t we go to the doctor?”
“No, we try this first,” Nai Nai said. “Most of the time, we don’t need to go.”
Nai Nai put the mask over my face. I took a few breaths, then pulled it off so that I could cough.
My mother was grabbing my hand. “She can’t breathe! We have to go get her help.”
“She’s fine!” Nai Nai insisted.
They both looked at me.
“I don’t want to go to the hospital,” I said. Tears were running down my face.
“Don’t cry,” my mother said. “The sniffing is not good for your asthma.”
“I’m not crying. It’s the mist from the breathing mask,” I said. Each word took a breath to get out, and I was panting. My chest felt tight. Any tighter, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to take the next breath.
I was terrified. I turned to Nai Nai.
“It’s OK,” she said. She took me into her arms and started singing the song from my preschool about monkeys and ducklings.
My breathing didn’t get better. With the next coughing spell, my mother began yelling that I was turning red and blue.
“Duo Duo is sick,” she said. “I have to take her to the hospital now.”
“I’ll go,” I said, “but I want to go with Nai Nai.”
There was a story Nai Nai would tell me that always gave me nightmares. It was about a beautiful woman who made many men fall in love with her. They would do anything for her. They all wanted to marry her and so bestowed her with flattery and gifts. What they didn’t know was that she was actually a monster who would kill them when she grew tired of them, which inevitably happened. When it became time, she would peel off her face, which was a mask all along, and reveal a horrific pale-faced ghoul.
Nai Nai told me the story so that I would be careful of strangers—they were not always who they said they were. Sometimes I had dreams about this woman being my mother, and I’d wake up soaked in sweat as I imagined her peeling off her face.
That night, when my mother stared at me, her face was as white as the pale-faced ghoul from Nai Nai’s stories. Nai Nai carried me in her arms, and my mother followed us out the door. Tears were running down my cheek, and also down hers.
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Copyright © 2021 by Leana Wen