My mom and I share a birthday. She always desperately tried not to pay homage to her age, and so for most of our life, it was my birthday, and my birthday alone: my presents, my friends, my party, and my crying if I wanted to. As the pageantry of a birthday gradually lost its shine, I began to shirk the responsibility of the day as well, my mom and I tossing it between us like a hot potato. In our new, shared reluctance to turn age into a holiday, I could see the wreckage from the all the birthdays I claimed for my own: how each year of us getting older (the x-years-young joke never played well with her) has been lined with episodes of us tearing at each other’s throats, pockmarked with my intermittent cruelty and her episodes of overbearing maternal behavior.
I was cruel the day I was born. My mom was slight and soft, but also calloused from the Cultural Revolution. She was buckling from teaching all day and studying all night, but there I was, sitting in her, literally sitting, refusing to come out, already two weeks late in the middle of a winter that was also cruel. At the Shanghai Railway Hospital, doctor after doctor told my mom not to worry, a sentiment my dad echoed, trying to tame the chaos. Then doctor number five burst into the hospital room screaming that we should operate now, and so began the symphony of surgical instruments, of screaming from my mom as they made the first cut for a C-section having forgotten the anesthesia. Out I came, brown, bawling, fists swinging, two pounds heavier than the average newborn. Happy birthday, the doctors said, while I cried and cried and cried.
Even in America, my mom never goes to the beach. She never goes to the pool, never puts on a swimsuit. She buys ultra high-waisted mom jeans and long tunics. She never changes in public changing rooms. She has a deep, dark scar running down her abdomen, as if her body was made of two halves stitched together, the scar I gave her on our birthday.
Two years after our family moved to the U.S., my mom started making me play the piano (surprise, surprise), which meant we screamed at each other every session, all the way to the campus practice rooms (we had a keyboard, but I wanted to play on a baby grand). My first piano teacher was a witch who kept her nails super long and painted them all different colors so that they clicked across the keys. My mom thought that was inappropriate and kept my nails trimmed to the stubs; I now instinctively chew them down whenever they feel too long.
I practiced Mozart – we practiced Mozart – on our birthday. It was -20F; school was cancelled. On our walk to the practice rooms from the graduate student housing where we lived, we passed a row of trees with holiday ornaments still hanging on them. It was nearly a month after Christmas, and neither of us saw the harm in poaching a few miniature stuffed reindeers — until we looked up to find a cop standing in front of us.
“You’re trespassing and stealing,” he said. “What is your name?”
In an act of unexpected badassery, my mom gave a false name.
The cop turned to me and I cracked immediately, giving up my first name, last name, mom’s name, and dad’s name. We spent the morning of our birthday, my mom and I, standing in the cold while the cop wrote up some strangely worded bogus citation. Happy birthday, he said, glancing at her driver’s license.
After our flirtation with crime, my mom, allowing no Mozart to go unpracticed, marched me to the practice rooms. To this day, hearing Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 — as I did recently, while on hold with the RMV — makes me enraged.
Happy birthday means me throwing a fit. Before we moved to Western Massachusetts for my dad’s new job, I fought to delay our move. I was about to have a birthday party, my first real birthday party, and I was going to play hide and seek with my friends, which I already played a lot as a latchkey kid, though there was never anybody to do the seeking part. I made my mom some redeemable but truly useless coupons (“1 free dishwashing!” “1 free vacuuming session!” “1 drawing!”), then waited feverishly that week for the weekend to come, so consumed by excitement that I came down with a real fever and couldn’t hold the party, let alone hold down any solid food. The following week our moving vans were scheduled to arrive, so amid boxes and resold furniture, I cried for my lost cause party, while my mom packed boxes and quietly turned 40. She sat on the arm of our ugly couch, tore open a bag of M&Ms, and poured a few into her hand.
“Hey, look at this silver one,” she said, and popped the bunch into her mouth. “It’s lucky.”
We later looked at the packaging, which declared that silver M&Ms came with a million-dollar cash prize.
For the first year or so in our new town, my mom gave up her work to “raise me right,” and one of those ways was packing me a proper lunch so I didn’t have to eat the unidentifiable meats served at the school cafeteria. I hated the contents of my lunchbox, the unusual non-American food, the rice, the curtain of exotic smells that fell around me when I opened my pack. At school I became allergic to what I devoured at home, despite the hours my mom spent braising and broiling and baking.
“I don’t want to eat this! I can’t eat this! I won’t make any friends!”
I wanted to become American by discarding everything I knew about China. My mom wanted to keep China with her, however unfriendly her upbringing there. She finally relented and started packing me Campbell’s, Slimfast energy bars, and Lunchables – foods straight out of Andy Warhol – and I waved those rubbery meat-dimes around proudly during our thirty minutes of lunch like flags.
For my birthday that year, my parents bought me a comfortably American vanilla ice cream cake from Friendly’s and had my name and “Happy Birthday” spelled out in candy on top. I shared the cake with friends at my long-awaited birthday party and forgot about the woman whose birthday it also was. When she told me to clean up, I told her I was going to be rich eventually, and would hire my own chefs and my own cleaners. Silent, she went to her room, I went to mine, and I then went to school. I never wished her a happy birthday.
That is how any argument, any conflict between us ended – with a whimper, with shame. That is how goodbyes went, too, when I went off to college and my mom would visit me during our birthday week: me waving awkwardly as my parents pulled away, leaving me with bags and bags of homemade Asian snacks – shrimp crackers, eggs boiled in tea, edamame soaked in five-spice – to share with my friends. Of course I hid those in my dorm room, ate them privately, licking my fingers shamefully, hiding all the Asian supermarket packaging. Happy birthday, I would whisper when no one was around me.
The next holiday would roll around, and we would do it all over again.
Just before my birthday in my senior year of college, I was on one of those sputtering Chinatown buses back to Boston from New York City after interviewing for a paralegal job I really didn’t want but my mom thought was the rope that would rescue me from a destitute future of being “socially conscious.” You’ll get nowhere without money, she would say, you have to be motivated by money. Being a socially conscious person who isn’t moved by money means being a great person, I would shoot back. You think I’m a bad person, she would say. I didn’t say that, I would say, and hang up angrily. We had one of those conversations on my bus ride home, and after I hung up, my phone died.
An Arundhati Roy quote flared up in my mind: That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less. The bus swung unsteadily on the highway, shaking away my anger until it became annoyance, then a lingering thought, then sleep.
When I got back to my dorm, my roommates rushed me. “Your mom has been calling and calling us,” one said. “She thinks you’ve gone missing.”
“She called NYPD,” another said.
I picked up my re-juiced phone, dialed home, and my mom picked up. Happy birthday, I’m sorry, I didn’t say.
My mom and I never say I’m sorry. We say: you’re being overly sensitive. We say: you’re being condescending. I would never tell her about my hookups, my summer boyfriends, my leaving from someone else’s bed in the morning – indiscretions such as these are for bad girls, and my mom couldn’t have raised a bad girl.
She dug through my suitcase once when I was home for a long break and found birth control pills, which were, according to her, Band-Aids for bad girls. I was working and had my own office now, so by my mom’s standards, the professional wardrobe I’d collected for myself said more “I sleep in my office” than “I have an office.” She had to take a dig at each item of clothing, the skirt that was a little too matronly, the Oxford shirt that was a little too wrinkly, the pants that weren’t sufficiently slimming for a girl with larger thighs. As she shook out a too-staid blouse, a silver packet of Altavera slipped to the ground.
“What’s this?” she asked me.
I snatched it back from her too quickly, tossed it back into my suitcase too hastily. “It’s for my acne,” I said. I held her glare and she, mine.
“The woman always suffers, you know,” my mom said. “It’s the woman who has to give birth.”
It’s the woman who has to give birth; it’s the woman who has to bear a permanent scar. My mom and I both think about her scar, but we do it silently.
We’re comfortable with silence and anger, but we squirm like young children when it comes to love. We aren’t the kind of family to say I love you, to touch easily, to even dole out no-pressure expressions of gratitude; we are the kind whose cups runneth over with spectacular quality guilt, a kind that would make our ancestors proud. Our hugs are awkward pats on the back, some head nodding, and minds buzzing with things unspoken. Happy birthday is the worst of these unspoken things, because I love my mom so much, and to tell her would be to eject the thorn in my throat that would tear me to pieces on its way out.