Family

Middle Ground

June 10, 2019
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Average Rating: 4.04
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My first memory of making my mother angry starts with a mirror.

When I was a kid, I spent countless hours staring at my reflection, pinching and poking my face. Everyone told me they saw my mother’s features in my brows, my eyes, my long, slender fingers. I didn’t get it. Was my face mine, or was it hers?

I would trace the shape of my eyebrow. “This is ma ma’s,” I’d try. My reflection’s brow would furrow up, and I’d try again. “This is mine.” Neither sounded right.

In school, I would retrace the strokes of my name on my worksheet. Katie. I had always hated it – too plain, too boring, too sweet. My mom had given me two names: one English, one Chinese. Neither felt right. Any time she called me by either of them, I felt like I was going to itch straight out of my skin.

There wasn’t much I could do about it but go back to the mirror. Back to prodding and stretching my mouth, as if I could force another, better name out of there. Maybe a Nancy. I could probably pass for a Nancy.

One fateful day, I decided to cut my name short. I put my pencil down before it could trace the last letter, and I studied the result. Kati. No “e”. It was a small change, practically nothing, but I felt like it made all the difference. It looked like something that I could fit into. It looked like a name that my eyebrows and nose and restless, twitchy fingers could belong to.

I went home and broke the news to my parents. My mother was deeply offended. “Your name is beautiful,” she said sharply. “I gave it to you. Why do you want to change it?”

Because you gave it to me, I didn’t say. “Ma ma, It’s just a letter,” I said instead.

“It’s not just a letter,” my mom bit out as my dad tried to placate her. “You’re changing your name. Your family gave you that name. It means something to carry your family’s name.”

I knew about the importance of names in China. Each name is a meticulously crafted combination of characters that symbolizes your family’s hopes and values.

Regardless, I wasn’t backing down. “It’s just a letter, Mom. Get over it.”

We clashed many more times over this. On top of her physical features, I’d also inherited my mom’s temper and stubborn streak. Even now, she hasn’t quite let go. Twelve years later, I’ll still find absent-minded notes that she’s scribbled on grocery lists: For Katie.

-

My mother and I have always had a convoluted relationship. When I mention her to others, I feel immense pride. I talk their ears off about how she immigrated to America with no money or connections, and is now a tenured full professor and department chair for graduate studies. Whenever I get good news, she’s the first one I call. Once I get her on the phone, she’ll bombard me with so many questions that I’ll make up any excuse so I can hang up. When the dial tone sounds, I immediately miss her so immensely that my stomach sours.

When I’m in a bad mood, I’ll ignore her texts for hours and feel sick validation from of the increasingly frequent Hello??s that she spams me with. When I’m in a good mood, I’m the one spamming her. When I’m feeling softer – sweet, syrupy – she’s 妈妈. Ma ma. When I’m in a hurry, she’s 妈. Normally, she’s just Mom. I tried to talk to her about it recently, the role of two languages in our relationship.

“Mom,” I say as I push the grocery cart through the produce aisles. “Do you ever think, like – ”

“Don’t say ‘like’.” (My mother, sharp-eared even as she thumps a watermelon to gauge its ripeness.)

“ – like, kids who have different first languages or cultures than their parents will never be able to fully connect with them or, like, understand them, on a fundamental level, because, like, there are some things that can’t be translated over? You know what I mean?”

My mother hmmms and goes to pick up another watermelon.

I don’t want a hmmm. I want a middle ground of mutual understanding. I want an “Aha!” moment. I want some brilliant flash of reconciliation, sparks and all, where she can hook her arm in my elbow and I suddenly understand everything she’s trying to say.

“Because we just grew up in such fundamentally different contexts. And I get that’s true for every parent-child relationship, but… Don’t you ever feel like there’s so much you want to say to me that you can’t express? But that maybe you could if I was raised in Shanxi with you and Grandma?”

My mother deems a watermelon worthy enough and puts it in the cart. “Of course there are idioms and phrases that cannot be translated without losing some intended meaning,” she says smoothly, and the five-year old child within me wants to scream out “You don’t understand!”

-

At the beginning of freshman year, I joined a leadership program. One of the exercises was to talk about our heroes and what we admired about them. All of the girls in our group began gushing about their moms. “My mother is my best friend,” I heard over and over again. “I miss her so much.”

I shifted uncomfortably and thought about a scene that happened just two weeks before. I was with my family having our last dinner together before I went off to college. We were at Maudie’s Tex-Mex because I was sick of eating Chinese food. Inevitably, the topic of visiting home came up. “You’ll come home and eat with us on the weekends, right?” My mom asked.

“Uh,” I squeaked. “No? I mean…”

She furrowed her brows in that familiar way, the way that she passed down to me, the way that I often saw in the mirror.

“You’ll be so close to home,” my dad, the peacemaker, coaxed. “Just twenty minutes. You should come back.”

I had no intentions of doing so. Going to college so close to home was already a nightmare. I wanted to get away, to reinvent myself somewhere gorgeous and distant. Instead, I was going to be trapped here, tied to a home that was too small and a mother I didn’t know how to talk to.

“You’ll miss this,” my mom said. “I left my home when I was nineteen, and I never lived there again, not ever. Do you know how much I miss our family dinners?”

I closed my eyes and tried to search for some middle ground. I love you, but I can’t understand you, I didn’t say. I love you, but I want to be away from you, I didn’t say. I love you, I didn’t say.

The next day was a flurry of moving trucks and packing. I slumped onto my tiny new bed in exhaustion as my mom finished hanging up my piles of clothes. I felt my irritation begin to simmer as she fussed and nosed through all my belongings.

After she checked my schedule for the hundredth time, it was time to go. I swallowed the sudden, inexplicable panic in my throat and held myself back from saying anything stupid, like asking her to stay longer.

“Visit home soon,” she told me. I looked at her face, the face that she passed down to me. I studied the ever-present furrow between her brows and wondered if that was one thing that I ended up passing on to her.

When she left, I cried. Home felt much further than twenty minutes away.

-

Now, my mom and I call and text each other constantly. Somehow, it’s much easier to talk to each other than it was in high school. She’ll FaceTime me when she’s driving home, while she’s making dinner, when she’s on the couch. Sometimes she’ll read me an article in the news.

After I left for college, she ordered a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. This steady stream of newspapers has turned our house into a Hoarders episode. Every flat surface is piled high with plastic-wrapped Wall Street Journals that she swears she’ll catch up to soon enough.

She makes a valiant effort to do so. Almost every night, she sets aside time to meticulously annotate each article. They’re littered with question marks, underlines, and scribbled definitions in the margins. Sometimes, she’ll discover words that she thinks are particularly interesting, and she’ll quiz me on them. A few weeks ago it was “abnegation”.

Most of the time I’ll absentmindedly mumble “I don’t know” as I scroll through Facebook. There is no quicker, more surefire way to irritate her.

“You don’t know, you don’t know!” She’ll gripe. “What do you know?”

“I don’t know,” I’ll say again.

“Guess,” she’ll push.

And it’s normally around this time that I’ll decide I’ve had enough. “Look,” I’ll say, “I’m kind of busy right now.”

She’ll deflate. “Dress warm tomorrow. And don’t forget to read that article I sent you.”

“Okay,” I’ll say.

Then she’ll pause and say, “I love you.” It’ll always crackle coming out of my phone’s speakers.

“Looove you.” I’ll sing-song back to her. For some reason, we only ever say it on the phone. We only ever say it in English.

As soon as she hangs up, I’ll miss her immensely. It’s always the same painful realization that comes too late. I wonder why I can never tell her that when she’s right here. I feel like we’re closest to each other when I’m farthest away.

-

A few years ago, my dad told me that my mom had multiple benign tumors in her uterus. They were incredibly painful, and he told me to start acting more considerate with her. More kind. More loving.

Last month, she underwent a procedure to treat them. A tube that would cut off blood flow to the tumors was inserted into her arm, and she took a week off of work to recover. I had multiple tests and my organization’s formal that week, but I felt guilty enough that I squeezed out an hour out of my Saturday to go home.

When I unlocked the door, the house was quiet. I made my way up to her bedroom, where she was swaddled in a mass of blankets. She blinked at me sleepily, looking exhausted and gray.

“Hey,” I said stupidly. “Mom. Does it hurt?”

It did.

“Do you want to see my formal dress?” I asked. “I just got shoes, too.”

She did, and I put it on for her. Her brow furrowed in that familiar way as she told me I should have saved my money and worn her qipao.

“But… that’s yours.”

She huffed at me, and I crawled in bed next to her. I wanted to be tender, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to take care of her, but I didn’t know how. Maybe I could have figured it out if I had the whole weekend, but I was counting down the minutes I had left in my head. I understood that it was terrible to think this way, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing so.

I asked her if she wanted some tea. She said no, and asked me how long I was staying.

“I have to go in a few, 妈妈,” I said. “I have to get ready for formal.”

“You should stay longer,” she said, but I was already thinking about color schemes and formal pictures and open bar tabs. I left her to rest in bed.

-

On the night of the midterm elections, I called my mom. She picked up almost instantly, like she could sense that I needed something. “Hello?” she said.

My stomach was riddled with anxiety as I numbly scrolled through different election predictions. I had two assignments to complete by midnight, and I couldn’t focus for the life of me. Election coverage was playing at full-blast in my apartment and on campus, making it impossible to keep my mind on my homework. I felt homesick. “Can I come home?” I asked. “I mean, I know it’s late, but…”

I felt young and needy, like an eight-year-old with simpler problems that my mom could smooth away with a life lesson.

“You can always come home,” my mom said. “Always. You can always 回家.”

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into our driveway. My mom had the porch lights on for me, the way she always turns them on when I drive in the dark. There was a steaming bowl of wonton soup on the table, and a plate of sliced-up apples next to it. As we talked at the dinner table, I catalogued the shape of her eyes, the slant of her brows, the length of her fingers. Mine, I thought. All this, mine. It was all right here, and my mother was with me, always, reflected in my most basic features.

“Thanks for letting me come home,” I said into my bowl of soup, and I knew that if we were on the phone, this was the moment when I’d say “I love you.”

-

Thanksgivings are always a quiet affair in my family. There’s just the four of us – my parents, my thirteen-year-old brother, and me. We used to buy an HEB rotisserie roasted chicken in lieu of a turkey, but we stopped after I inadvertently insulted my mom by implying that she didn’t understand Thanksgiving traditions. This year, my mom roasts a real turkey. It’s dry and overdone, but we tear into it anyways.

Every holiday meal, we 干杯excessively. It’s essentially drinking to a toast, with lots of glass-clinking every few minutes. This year, we spend a good minute toasting over and over again. My brother gives a classic middle-schooler speech: drawn-out and appropriately pompous. My dad and I raise our eyebrows at each other and wordlessly perform a 干杯.

“Hey!” My brother squeals. “You can’t just toast without saying anything!”

I wiggled my eyebrows obnoxiously. “Dad and I just know what we mean already. We don’t have to say anything. Right, Dad?”

My dad snickers into his macaroni. “We have a special bond.”

I laugh and raise my glass wordlessly to my mom.

She doesn’t raise her glass back. “No,” she says, proud as always. “If you want to toast with me, you have to say it.”

I look into her eyes, which are my eyes, and the words fall out of my mouth and hang suspended in the air like pennies, slowly sinking to the bottom of a fountain. “I’m thankful for you, 妈妈. Mom. I’m proud of you.”

Something in my chest eases a little bit.

Our glasses go clink, and then she doesn’t have to say anything at all. After all this time, I feel like I finally understand. I heap more dry turkey on my plate and I think maybe this is it, finally, we found it – our middle ground.


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Gorgeous. Brings new meaning to tough love.
naricorn rated this work:

June 13, 2019, 10:59 a.m.

Hello, I LOVED this! I've only given (I think) a couple other stories on this site this high of a rating. Your writing is so evocative and clear. You do a great job of illustrating the narrator's struggle with her need for distance from, yet her longing for connection with, her mother.

*Going back to the beginning after reading the whole piece, I think I connected with the later parts more. I get that maybe the narrator also can't vocalize what makes her so uncomfortable, but I wanted to better understand why she would balk at being compared to her mother while other kids might be proud. We get hints through their subtle, not very expressive interactions (which I love) but is there more to it? Are aspects of her mother's personality particularly grating? Does the narrator have trouble fitting in other contexts (on this point, I liked the scene contrasting her relationship with her mother with those of other girls') which makes her lash out? Is there any shame in her mother being from another culture? All these are guesses, obviously, but I'm curious.

*"One fateful day" seems like a bit of a cliched phrase to me, but it's not too big a deal.

*The brow furrowing trips me up a bit. You start by emphasizing the narrator's mom passes that on to her and then there's that sentence, "I studied the ever-present furrow between her brows and wondered if that was one thing that I ended up passing on to her." I assume you're trying to say the narrator realizes familial influence is a two-way street and that she was wrong, but I think you could phrase it better.

*What is "now?" Is the narrator in college still? Needs a short placement.

*The "I don't know" section was like a scene from my own life. My God.

*"For some reason, we only ever say it on the phone. We only ever say it in English." This line hit me hard. I wonder if it might be that the narrator's mother thinks her daughter could only connect with the words in English. Or that the daughter feels that it's not as serious (she does also sing-song it) when her mother doesn't receive it in the mother tongue. "Love you" is also thrown around easily in English, so it's less meaningful. Or both are uncomfortable expressing emotion, whether that's also because of culture or just their relationship.

*Some parts in this narrative don't quite fit together seamlessly. I think that may be because things that logically progress to you (because you understand the characters better) don't do the same for an unfamiliar reader. I was confused as to what the point of the WSJ part was, for example, and didn't know why the narrator leaving for college would make her mother order the WSJ. Was there a conversation that incited that? Was the mother just bored?

*One thing I love about this narrative is that it's honest. The narrator has selfish thoughts but doesn't hide them, and it's such a realistic portrayal.

Character Motivation Dialogue Concision

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Hen hao
cereed27 rated this work:

June 15, 2019, 2:14 a.m.

Beautiful essay.

Pacing Point of View Conflict Voice

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Heartwarming!
tangledcharms rated this work:

July 3, 2019, 2:17 a.m.

There's something about the slow reveal, the push-and-pull of the relationship between Katie and her mother that touches the heart. I love how the scenes were sequenced from Katie being close to her being distant with her mother, because it balances out their relationship and express their dynamics well. I love how Katie explored her feelings towards her mother and how her actions were tentative towards the end, but the conclusion wrapped up the previous bitterness she harbored towards her mom. I'm not an Asian-American, but I was raised overseas my entire life and when Katie questioned whether her upbringing in a different environment could have led to less understanding between her and her mother, that resonated within me. Who knew that that identity conflict could be phrased with simple words?

However, I do feel like the story lacks a little in background information. While it's nice to know right off the bat that Katie didn't like being compared to her mother, I wasn't able to fully grasp why. It did feel a little unfair that she took out her dislike of being compared to on her mom, though it did add to the tensions a little bit. Seeing that there's a word count limit, though, makes it understandable, but if ever this piece will be extended, I think that'll be a good idea to explore why.

Otherwise, this was amazing and I loved every scene of it! (Would also like to see more Katie and her mom in the future.)

Pacing Conflict

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Stunning. I'm going to hug my mom now.
van rated this work:

June 20, 2019, 11:58 a.m.

Beautiful. So genuine and heartfelt. I FELT this, you know? I'm not Chinese, but I am a first-generation American, and so many parts of this felt like pages from my own life. That middle ground, that wondering if there's always going to be something that culture just can't translate for you-- I think that often. I'm visiting my mom's family in Colombia soon, and I'll definitely be thinking about this then. And yet this piece was also honest and real enough that it's uniquely the narrator's experience, too, and you don't shy away from showing the narrator's negative thoughts either. All in all, lovely.

I do wish we'd gotten some more insight into the narrator's feelings towards her mom-- why was she so uncomfortable getting compared? I'm sure you don't want to be super obvious about it, but I'd like at least some context. Was it because of her mom's personality? Because the narrator just doesn't want to be compared to someone else and wants to be her own person? Some insight onto the start/factors contributing to the narrator's relationship with her mom would make this even stronger, I feel. On that note, I loved this sentence: "was my face mine, or was it hers?" Powerful.
Another sentence I LOVED: "I studied the ever-present furrow between her brows and wondered if that was one thing that I ended up passing on to her." It felt like everything came full circle. This made me remember that this is the power of writing: being able to convey such emotional complexity and unspoken consequences in just one sentence.
Overall, this was an excellent, real, touching study of mother-daughter relationships. Great writing is writing that makes you feel, and that's what this did for me.

Plot Voice Originality Character Motivation

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Tense relationship, perfect pacing
eva rated this work:

Sept. 7, 2019, 6:50 p.m.

This story has a dreamy quality to it - the pacing is slow yet it doesn't drag. The imagery isn't about any physical scene, but about the emotional bond (and tensions) between a daughter and mother. I can *feel* what the narrator is feeling and while none of it is acute, the emotions behind each phrase makes an impact.

The dialog between the two women feels quite authentic and raw. The narrator's interior feelings also resonate, but aren't cloying in any sense. Neither is the mother's *(not-quite)nagging* - both women seem to not only find a middle ground, but a balance of honesty, a push-and-pull rhythm that each can't quite master. I love the honesty of each. I love the pacing and character development of each person.

Pacing

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Let Mom and Daughter Evolve
[email protected] rated this work:

July 16, 2019, 6:21 p.m.

With better phrasing and character development, Middle Ground could be the compelling read it was meant to be. For me the story got off to a rough start, I was waiting to read about the mother's anger being triggered by the mirror, but I went back and then I realized it was my misunderstanding of the first sentence. The mirror was insignificant to that scene.
Visceral reactions should build reader empathy; however, I had a difficult time with, "I wanted to itch out of my skin." It reminded me of the expression. "made my flesh crawl." I couldn't suspend disbelief that a child would be so disgusted at her parent calling her by her birth names. The author described her English and Chinese name as “too plain, too boring, too sweet.” These descriptions don’t make me think of the degree of disgust her visceral reaction gives.
If the author had begun her story with, "My mother and I have always had a convoluted relationship." I would have been hooked immediately. The beginning of the second section made me want to read more. I liked reading how Katie was proud of her mother, but she didn’t like being overwhelmed with questions. I wondered what were the questions being asked. Why couldn’t Katie tell her mom her questioning was making her feel overwhelmed? This would have given more insight into Katie. I wanted to like the characters in the story, but I felt I didn’t knew about their motivations.
So, the tension between mother and daughter has been built. Now to build the characters too. Flesh them out more. That’s it in a nutshell for me.

Show Don't Tell Character Motivation Diction

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Beautiful
Chrysalis rated this work:

Aug. 17, 2019, 3:12 p.m.

I can't entirely relate to this because I'm a second generation immigrant but I did find a great deal of this resonated with me as I was reading it. The language barrier, the cultural clashes, even the name thing as I too ended up choosing my own name because I was unhappy with the one given to me (and it was an English name rather than one from my cultural background). I found the voice for this to be very strong and the subject matter moving. I think a lot of girls of colour can relate to having a particularly close and complicated relationship with their mother, like the conversation about college was definitely one I could imagine having even though I willingly chose to stay home.

I don't have much constructive feedback to give because I feel that the story ultimately conveyed what it was meant to. But thank you for sharing.

Point of View Voice

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Heartwarming!
tangledcharms rated this work:

July 3, 2019, 2:16 a.m.

There's something about the slow reveal, the push-and-pull of the relationship between Katie and her mother that touches the heart. I love how the scenes were sequenced from Katie being close to her being distant with her mother, because it balances out their relationship and express their dynamics well. I love how Katie explored her feelings towards her mother and how her actions were tentative towards the end, but the conclusion wrapped up the previous bitterness she harbored towards her mom. I'm not an Asian-American, but I was raised overseas my entire life and when Katie questioned whether her upbringing in a different environment could have led to less understanding between her and her mother, that resonated within me. Who knew that that identity conflict could be phrased with simple words?

However, I do feel like the story lacks a little in background information. While it's nice to know right off the bat that Katie didn't like being compared to her mother, I wasn't able to fully grasp why. It did feel a little unfair that she took out her dislike of being compared to on her mom, though it did add to the tensions a little bit. Seeing that there's a word count limit, though, makes it understandable, but if ever this piece will be extended, I think that'll be a good idea to explore why.

Otherwise, this was amazing and I loved every scene of it! (Would also like to see more Katie and her mom in the future.)

Pacing Conflict

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