My new Chinese mother-in-law is visiting us at our grungy little studio apartment in Long Beach, and she is definitely not impressed. Sitting there on a cool autumn day in 1978 with her son––my husband––perched protectively beside me, I plaster a welcoming smile on my face and try to look delighted to see her as I pour some oolong tea into our mismatched mugs.
She scans the place with hooded eyes, giving monosyllabic responses in her very northern accent to my intensely chipper little queries in tortured Mandarin, and strenuously avoiding a glance in my direction. She is obviously mystified as to why she has to be in such a cheap dive, why her eldest son should be letting her down so completely, and most of all why she has to be confronted with the impossibly foreign bride he recently brought back with him from Taiwan.
No guidelines exist on the proper way to weasel into a Chinese mother-in-law’s good graces, and I’m foundering in the dark. I offer her some candies and salted watermelon seeds, but they cannot be expected to wield much magic here. No, for that I have to wait another 10 minutes, when the contents of the bamboo baskets steaming away on our chipped Wedgewood stove will save me. Or not.
The problem is, I don’t know what is going to happen. I am only certain that she thoroughly dislikes me. No, dislike is much too mild a word for what’s going on here. My mind runs over as many escalating verbs as I can list, while the other half of my brain fretfully attempts to come up with something clever to say during those long, awkward silences.
I realize now I should have known better than to take her dislike, distaste, opposition, aversion, hostility, abhorrence, repugnance, hatred, loathing, detestation, repulsion and utter antipathy for me as something personal. It’s obvious in hindsight she lived in fear that unintelligible America might someday work its way into her carefully molded Chinese world. And now a white girl was finagling her way into the family tree, muddying ancient traditions, upsetting the ancestors and insistently blurring the unblemished Chinese bloodlines that had demarcated their lives for millennia. As far as she was concerned, I was a disaster of epic proportions.
Still quite oblivious to my role in this drama, I have invited her over just to feed her, to get to know her, and to give her a chance to know me. I happen to have one arrow left in my quiver, though: I have always loved to cook. I figure that I might be able to use this to my advantage, for she almost never gets to eat dishes from her home in North China. Instead, the clan’s feasting tends to take place mainly in one or another of greater Los Angeles’ Cantonese dining palaces that feature the glorious foods of the South, where our upcoming dinner lazes around in gigantic tanks by our table and shiny lacquered ducks hang in windows before being whacked and served on massive white platters.
My mother-in-law devours her meals with gusto at times like this, and I revel in these temporary ceasefires in her war against my presence, when the only sound at our table is that of eating. Her family dives into plates of massive steamed prawns with roe still clasped between their tiny legs or coral-hued crabs studded with black beans and chopped garlic. Shreds of poached chicken are dipped in salty oils seasoned with ginger and green onions, while precise squares of roast suckling pig perch on savory soybeans. It’s all utterly delicious, and yet all downright nerve-wracking.
The good news is that she cheers up considerably when she is full. This must be a congenital trait, for in becoming the newest Mrs. Huang on the block I have discovered that feeding my husband his childhood favorites is the easiest way to make him happy. Before he came along, I had never seen such a strong connection between eating and mood. Now that we are together in Long Beach, I start to connect the dots: like mother, like son.
However, even if I do find that edible Proustian key to her psyche, I worry that this tough little cookie won’t crumble very easily. She is as notoriously closemouthed about herself as a Cold War spy. She won’t even tell anyone her birthdate. All we are certain of at that point is that once upon a time she had grown up in Beijing’s main seaport, Tianjin, as the pampered daughter of a warlord.
Nevertheless, I pester my husband for more clues, and one day he mentions the steamed little thimbles called chestnut wowotouer. When a tattered Chinese memoir tells me that such pastries had also been a favorite of the Dowager Empress Cixi, I can’t help but make a few inappropriate connections in my mind between the famed old lady who had once terrorized the Forbidden Palace and the one who is so nonchalantly intimidating me now.
We manage to get our hands on one or two old cookbooks, and before long I have mastered a handful of North China dishes that I think just might be the ticket, including those thimbles. Rich brown, slightly sweet, and naturally smoky in aroma, these are fashioned out of dried Chinese chestnuts, a half pound of hard little nuggets that have to be soaked, peeled, steamed and then finely ground into a paste before being mixed with flour and leavening. They are a labor of love––or, if not love, then at least a desperate longing for acceptance.
And so on this morning, with two baskets of these wowotouer steaming behind me on the stove, I consider myself armed and ready for an audience with my mother-in-law. More carefully honed weapons from North China are set out in this battle array: Two-dozen buttery sesame cookies, a large pot of creamy walnut soup, and a red-cooked chicken with mounds of black mushrooms and mealy potatoes just in case she stays long enough for dinner, plus a pyramid of homemade steamed buns rolled up into twists around specks of green onions and ground Sichuan peppercorns. I have organized my master plan down to the last detail as if it were the invasion of Normandy. Now I just need those starchy little thimbles and their backups to flip the right switches in my mother-in-law’s mind.
As she sits there at my kitchen table this afternoon, aromatic tendrils from the bamboo steamer begin to attract her attention. She sniffs the air and keeps looking in the stove’s direction. Even though she won’t deign to ask me what I’m making, I feel the first small glimmers of hope.
When the timer goes off and I open a basket, her eyes twinkle as she recognizes the pastries of her childhood. She plucks one up with her chopsticks, bites into it, and lets out an appreciative little sigh. As we eat our way through the first round, I ask her when she had last eaten these wowotouer, and she tells us a bit about her home back in Tianjin, her mother, her uncles, her nanny.
She expands on her story over the second basket. She talks about being the sole child of a powerful commander, a man she could only worship from afar, but also someone who eventually abandoned his little family when his wife did not bear him the son he so desperately craved. Her eyes flash as she remembers the guilt and anger she felt at having been born a mere girl. I murmur something consoling and most likely incredibly feeble as I serve her a plate of hot cookies and portion out the softly sweet soup.
As she nibbles on these, she remembers someone saying that her father had taken on yet another young wife, or maybe it was a concubine, who finally bore him a male heir. He was so proud of this accomplishment that he paraded his troops in front of them. Not long after that, he was shot during an insurrection. No one knows for certain what happened to the body, or to the young mother, or even to the infant son.
The light in our apartment starts to fade as I heat up the chicken and buns. I can see my thoughts reflected in my husband’s face as he digests this news about the possibility of an uncle being out there somewhere. I continue to feed her food from her past as she feeds us her memories.
Left to her own devices for the first time in her life, her mother took to running a shipping warehouse in Tianjin. She prospered in her newfound freedom, and she did this while tottering around on excruciatingly tiny bound feet. Like most Han Chinese girls, all the bones in her feet had been broken so that the heel and toes would curl toward each other and form a stunted ball three inches long. The agony of learning to walk on bone shards in submissive silence was considered good training for the bitter life a girl could look forward to back then in the good old days. I try to imagine someone actually crushing a daughter’s feet so that she could eventually be handed over to some man to use as he pleased, but fail miserably and instead just feel terribly cold inside.
As my mother-in-law reaches out and refills my cup, I do not know whether I am more shocked by the senseless cruelties in her story or by the fact that she has just now actually served me tea. She takes a sip and continues. It didn’t happen to her, thank the heavens and the earth, she says. The feudal ways were finally disappearing in China, and her independent mother wanted to see her daughter walk and even run with ease––simple pleasures that she, of course, had never enjoyed.
This decision ended up allowing my mother-in-law to escape just as the Japanese were poised to invade Tianjin in 1937. Japan’s soldiers were notorious for their almost inhuman savagery, especially toward women, and the city was preparing itself for a siege and bombardment, then the inevitable horrors and humiliations of a long occupation. She tells us proudly of how she hacked off her black tresses before putting on boy’s clothes and stowing away on a ship bound for Vietnam. Though little more than a teenager, she hiked from there across Southeast Asia and up the Burma Road into China’s wartime capital of Kunming in Yunnan province.
She blossomed in the tropical air of the central highlands to become a true beauty, and before long she married a dashing fighter pilot from the southern province of Guangdong. She eventually bore her husband four children, decamped with them to Taiwan when the communists won the civil war, and finally followed her family to the United States.
As she slows down, I realize from her story that she had never managed to leave China––and especially her hometown––behind. There was too much unsettled business back there in Tianjin that still had to be addressed, processed and perhaps even forgiven. And then by never bothering to learn to drive or speak much English or even make a friend or two here, she had managed to keep America a distant reality safely beyond her family’s walls. That is, at least until I came along. My defensiveness wanes as I no longer see her as my tormentor, but rather as someone who has simply turned her life in on itself.
Slowly unraveling herself from her memories, my mother-in-law finishes the last of her dinner. We empty our teacups. She has run out of words to put to her thoughts. She looks much frailer than I have ever seen her, but the disapproving crease between her eyebrows has softened. As we say our goodbyes, I give her a tiny hug that at first makes her freeze. Then, she tentatively squeezes me back before her son drives her home.
All illustrations by Carolyn Phillips