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You are invited to explore the 100-year history of Chinese Students at the University of Washington, 1905-2005. Experience their personal stories and learn the cultural exchange between America and China through their lives.
Having wandered for years from East to West, from North to South, year after year I am growing and my knowledge is increasing. The world is becoming smaller. Mom in my home village is growing older.
Twenty-one years ago, Mom saw me off on the train. Ever since then, I haven’t stopped to explore the world. In the twenty-one years, from Beijing to Shanghai, from Canton to Hong Kong, from New York to Washington, from South America to South Africa, from London to Sydney, I’ve wandered in over fifty countries. I have worked and lived in over a dozen cities. Every time I arrive at a new place, I change my entire being inside out to adapt to new surroundings. One thing that never changes is my memory of Mom. Once IP telephone cards appeared, I was able to call her often from overseas. On the phone, Mom’s excited voice would make it possible for me to lightheartedly face the difficulties in life and all its challenges. What worried me was the feeling that my Mom’s voice was becoming older and older. In the last two years, Mom always told me repeatedly to take good care of myself, not to worry about her, to live well abroad, not to think of going home to the village because that would cost too much money and that going back home would not be a good move for my job and my career, and not to miss her. She became more and more nagging, so nagging that my heart ached listening to her. I know Mom missed me.
Mom is seventy-five years old this year.
I decided to put aside what I was doing, and to postpone all plans; so as to be able to go home to keep Mom company for one month. I decided that within this one month at home, I was not going to do or think about anything else but to devote myself solely to be with Mom.
From the day I called to inform Mom of my homecoming decision to the day that I actually would be home was a period of 2 months and 8 days. Later I learned that as soon as Mom finished listening to my call, she took out her little book in which she wrote down a plan for all the preparation that she wanted to make for my return. In those two months, she would prepare all my favorite food, make a new duvet cover, and prepare some clothes for me to wear at home. All this work was no simple task for someone who could not move about easily and who suffered from mild Alzheimer’s disease. No one could or would appreciate all her efforts. Finally, the day before my return, Mom proudly announced to her neighbors that she had finished all the preparation.
I arrived home. On the plane, I thought when I saw my Mom I would give her a hug, but when we saw each other, I didn’t hug her. Mom stood there like a wind-dried piece of wood with wrinkles on her face which made it impossible for me to recall her former appearance.
Mom spent hours preparing food for me that I used to love before. But I knew I already didn’t like what I loved before. Moreover, Mom’s vision was blurry, and her sense of taste and smell had changed. The dishes she made were either too salty or too bland. Mom prepared the new duvet for me with new cotton. She stuffed in a lot of the cotton so the duvet was really thick which I was not used to. I had long switched over to electric blanket. But I didn’t say anything because I came home to be with Mom.
During the first two days of my visit, Mom was so busy doing things for me that she had no time to sit down. When she finally had time to sit down, she started to nag me. Mom started to tell me how to live with all her life theories. These theories were the same ones that she repeated over and over again for the last few decades. Later, Mom even started to use these life theories to evaluate my life and work. So I patiently told Mom that those theories were passé. Mom sat there quietly in a dazed manner.
Situations turned worse. I discovered that Mom didn’t have good eyesight. When she cooked, she wasn’t hygienic. In the rice and dishes, I found little bugs or flies. If rice fell in the cooking areas, she would pick up the rice and put it back into the bowl. I suggested to her gently that we could go out to eat. Mom immediately told me that food outside was not clean and fake food was plentiful. I told Mom that I would like to hire some housekeeping help for her. Mom got angry and limped away. She proceeded to inform me that she could be someone else’s housekeeper. I had nothing more to say and I wanted to go out. Mom wanted to come along with me, and finally we didn’t manage to go to the mall at all.
Every time we discussed a topic, Mom always thought I had gone astray on the wrong path. I became impatient and told her that times had changed and that she should not be judging everything with her old ways of thinking.
During the second half of my stay, I found I was constantly cutting off my Mom when she talked. I grew increasingly impatient with her. We never fought because every time I raised my voice to cut my Mom off, she would stop talking and remain silent. She would have this glaze over her eyes – Mom’s Alzheimer’s disease had become more and more serious.
Before I left, Mom struggled to drag a paper carton out from under the bed. She opened it to take out a thick wad of newspaper clippings. I discovered that Mom paid very close attention to what was happening outside China ever since I left home. She subscribed specifically to some reference publication. Every time she read about incidences of discrimination of overseas Chinese abroad, or if there’s any serious security problem, she would carefully cut out the newspaper article and put it away. She wanted to save these to give to me whenever I returned home. She always insisted that I must take very good care of myself when I was alone by myself abroad. Her neighbors told me that one time Mom saw on television some news about Japanese bullying Chinese, she started to cry. The next day, she asked the neighbor how the news could be brought to me in Japan where I was lecturing.
Mom took the carefully cut and tied up pile of newspaper clippings and handed the heavy bundle to me as if it’s the most important treasure. I was faced with a dilemma because I did not want to take this useless bundle of old newspaper clippings with me, and yet the difficult task she took on herself to cut these out could only be understood by me. I knew Mom had to use a magnifying glass to read the newspaper. In one day, she might possibly have read only two pages. To have collected this thick wad of newspaper clippings must have taken her a long, long time. This was really putting me on a spot. I could not possibly take this back with me. While I was thinking for a way out, a loose piece of paper fell out from the pile. I headed to retrieve it, but Mom picked it up first. However, she didn’t put this particular piece of paper back into my bundle. She carefully put it in her own pocket.
“Mom, what was on that piece of paper? Let me see.” I said.
Mom hesitated for a little while, then she put it on my pile of clippings. She then went into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
I picked up the little piece of paper and saw that on it was a poem entitled “When I Turn Old”, dated December 6, 2004 – the date that I started getting impatient with Mom and the date I started to cut her off mid-sentence whenever she started talking. The poem originated in Mexico from the November issue of Digital Family:
When I turn old, when I am not the original me:
Please understand me and have patience with me.
When I drip gravy all over my clothes, when I forget to tie my shoelaces:
Please remember how I taught you what not to do, and how to do many things by hand.
When I repeatedly tell you things that you’re tired of hearing:
Please be patient and listen to me. Please don’t interrupt me. When you were young, I told you the same story over and over again until you were sound asleep.
When I need you to help me bathe:
Please don’t scold me. Do you still remember how when you were small I had to coax you to take a bath?
When I don’t understand new technology:
Please don’t laugh at me or mock me. Please think how I used to be so patient with you to answer your every “Why”.
When my two legs are tired and I cannot walk anymore:
Please stretch out your powerful hands to lend me a hand, just like when you were a baby learning to walk I held both your hands.
When I suddenly forget what subject we are discussing:
Please give me a little time to recollect. Actually, it does not matter what we are talking about; as long as you are by my side, I am so contented and happy already.
When you see the old me, please don’t be sad:
Please understand me and support me, just like how I was with you when you were young and were just learning to face life. At the beginning, I guided you to the path of life. Now I ask you to keep me company to finish this last leg of my life. Give me your love and patience, I will give you a grateful smile, and crystallized in this smile is my endless love for you.
When I finished reading the poem, I was on the brink of tears. Mom walked out of the kitchen, I pretended nothing happened. Originally, Mom wanted me to read this poem after I had left. I put the poem on the thick pile of clippings. I opened my suitcase and took out an expensive suit to make room for this bundle of newspaper clippings. I saw that Mom was especially happy as if the newspaper bundle would guard me for life and as if I had returned to be the former good little child. She saw me all the way to the rental car.
That newspaper bundle was of no use, but the little piece of paper with the poem “When I Turn Old” would be with me from now on wherever I go.
This piece of paper is now on my desk in a frame. I want to publish this essay to share it with all overseas wandering sons and daughters. In this New Year before Chinese New Year, do call your Mom and tell her that you’ve been longing to eat her homemade dishes …
December 28, 2004