When I was ten, I found a black-and-white photograph in the back corner of my mother’s closet. Hidden inside a shoebox and jutting out of a stack of old letters, it captured what appeared to be the edge of a pond. It was an arresting shot. The water looked silvery, with a faint mist hanging over it. At the same time, the overhead camera angle conveyed a sense of danger and foreboding, as if whoever had taken the picture had been waiting for something to emerge from the water, something unnatural. Or at least that’s what I imagined while I stared at it—until finally, a strange tingling in my hands caused me to drop the photo back in the box and flee the room.
The room was technically my parents’ bedroom, though during those years my father lived and worked in Taipei. Like a seasonal marker, he would visit my mother and me in Los Angeles exactly four times a year. My parents were naturalized citizens who had immigrated to the US when I was two. In the beginning, they had done a series of odd jobs, barely getting by. Their primary goal had been to save enough money for a down payment on a house—we couldn’t wait to move out of our cramped apartment—but after several years of job insecurity, my father returned to Taiwan to his former job in hotel management. My mother and I stayed in California, and when I entered first grade, she took a part-time job at a local bank.
My mother was kind, sometimes too kind, but emotionally distant. She often lapsed into long silences and stared off into space as if she were far, far away, no longer in the room with me, no longer in the present. Since she was averse to talking about the past, I learned not to ask questions. Consequently, I knew very little about our ancestors. What I intuited was that they were somehow responsible for my mother’s fear of water. Because of her phobia, I was not allowed to take baths, only showers–and swimming lessons were out of the question.
Without a family history, I felt not only untethered but painfully self-conscious in America. If my mother was haunted, then I was the opposite of haunted, since haunted people possess memories that connect them to life. I was more like a ghost, looking for someone or something to haunt, without which I might float away.
I was more like a ghost, looking for someone or something to haunt, without which I might float away.
Once, in a supermarket, an Elvis song came on the sound system: “That’s Someone You Never Forget.” As I hummed along to it, my mother began to cough uncontrollably. Her coughing grew so severe that we had to leave the store. The moment we stepped outside, her coughing stopped, but she refused to go back inside for our groceries. So we left them sitting in the cart in the bread aisle. “Looking back is like death,” my mother said. “It’s better to keep moving forward.”
It occurred to me then that my mother had the inverse of nostalgia—which was what? Disgust? A lack of feeling? Too much feeling?
At home, in the dictionary, I found this: “Nostophobia (also known as ecophobia) is an abnormal fear or dislike of returning home. It is considered to be the opposite state of nostalgia. This fear may not always be caused by the home itself, and shame is the main culprit.”
To learn about Taiwan, I borrowed books from the library. I read about the Taiwan blue pheasant and the Taiwan hwamei and other birds found nowhere else on Earth. I pored over photographs of a lake of ghostly, partially submerged cedars, of rainbow waterfalls, of tropical rainforests and mountain peaks enshrouded in mystical red-tinted mist, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of my parents’ homeland. Why, I wondered, did they ever leave?
One night, while helping my mother clear the table, I made the mistake of asking her if she ever missed Taiwan.
A distant empty stare. Then her shoulders drooped. “No,” she said with a firm shake of her head.
“You mean you’ve never been homesick?” I persisted.
Before answering, she cleared the serving platters, then the rice bowls, then the chopsticks. Then she turned to me and said, “America is home. Taiwan was a sad place. I came here for happiness.”
But my mother did not seem happy. A cloud of sorrow hung over her, and there were times when I thought I’d heard her crying in the bathroom. Through the closed door, I would ask, “Mommy, are you okay?” after which the sobbing would halt. “I’m fine,” she would say in a falsely cheerful tone. Then: “Did you finish your homework?”
One Christmas, shortly after my father had arrived home, jet-lagged and slightly drunk from the twelve-hour flight from Taipei, he told me a story I would never forget.
Leaning back in his faux leather recliner, looking older and grayer than he’d seemed just a season ago, he said, “Did I ever tell you about the time your mother took me to see her childhood home?”
“No.” I goggled at him. “When was this?” My voice, I noted, had taken on an odd, underwater quality.
“It was a week after our wedding,” he said. “Your mother wanted me to see where she’d grown up. The house was in the countryside. It was a mansion, actually, abandoned for a decade. A tall brick wall surrounded it.” He sighed before continuing. “We walked right in, past two impressive stone lions guarding the front entrance and into a large courtyard. ‘Wow,’ I said to her, ‘you grew up here?’ Because even though the mansion had fallen into disrepair, you could tell it had been grand at one time. Without answering, your mother led me deeper into the house, through many hallways and smaller courtyards until we reached the main garden, which was wild and overgrown with flowering plum trees, chrysanthemums, weeds, and feral raccoons.
“Your mother pointed to a nearby rock garden. ‘That used to be a pond,’ she said in a flat tone. ‘It used to be eerily silent. The servants were terrified of it. They thought it was haunted, because they’d heard a rumor that my grandfather drowned his firstborn child in it—a baby girl—but my father insisted many times that this never happened. Then, a generation later, my brother drowned in that same pond. He was five; I was ten. I was supposed to be looking after him that day, but I was too busy picking sweet osmanthus flowers. I was addicted to their scent. My brother loved music. He loved to sing, Elvis songs especially. I’m the reason he died.’”
My father cleared his throat before continuing, “Your mother said that her father, like her grandfather, had only wanted sons. They believed you couldn’t love a daughter because she would eventually marry and become a part of her husband’s family. But a son was yours forever. A son would keep the family name alive. That’s why there was so much pressure on women to give birth to boys.”
“Okay,” I interjected, “but in biology, we learned that a baby’s sex is determined by the father. Sperm carry the deciding chromosome, either an X or a Y. So it’s the man’s own fault if he can’t have a son.”
“That’s true,” my father said. Then, after a long pause, he added, “I want you to know that your mother and I…we didn’t feel that way. We always wanted a daughter.”
He gave a sad smile and I gave a sad smile back.
“And while I was in the womb, my mother sang to me. That’s how I knew she loved me.”
“Because your grandfather was the eldest son,” he continued, “he inherited the family fortune, and in return he was supposed to provide a grandson. It wasn’t until your uncle’s birth that he finally felt like a good son, worthy of his fortune. To celebrate his son’s birth, he threw eight parties eight nights in a row. But after the drowning, he became a different person. First, he ordered the servants to fill in the pond. Then he started smoking opium to escape his grief. In a very short time, he had squandered the family fortune. Then he died of an opium overdose. Your mother and your grandmother were left with nothing, so they had to move in with relatives. Your grandmother took a job at a noodle shop. She never mentioned your grandfather’s name again.”
I struggled to breathe as my father spoke, my body reacting to his words while my brain struggled to catch up. I had so many questions, but they cowered in my throat.
My father stood up suddenly and twisted his body away: my mother had come into the room with a tray of food.
Of course, I’d already known that my mother had lost her baby brother. I just hadn’t known that I’d known. Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory” describes the relationship of the second generation to traumatic experiences of the previous generation that were transmitted to them so deeply that they feel like their own memories. My mother’s memories live in my bones, in my cells, in my genes, in my subconscious, though this was the first time I had heard the story of her baby brother, the first time I’d felt the pain of it. A part of my mother had died in Taiwan. Now I understood why.
The summer I was sixteen, my father returned to California and to us for good. My parents bought a modest, two-bedroom house with a small, tranquil backyard where we planted three trees: guava, water apple, and persimmon. My mother, who for several years had been working full-time at the bank, secured a job for my father at the same branch. Making up for lost time, my parents became inseparable: living, working, and commuting together. We were a family again.
A few days after the move, I was alone in the new house, unpacking books and winter clothes, when I came across the same shoebox that I’d found in my mother’s closet six years earlier. It sat forebodingly at the bottom of a box of coats. The moment I saw it, my stomach clenched. Bracing myself, I carefully removed the lid.
The snapshot lay on top of the stack of letters, right where I’d left it, as if no time had passed. I cradled it in my palms and stared intently at the pond. I wondered if this was the same pond in which my uncle had drowned. As if in response to my question, the water moved. It rippled gently at first and then violently. I rubbed my eyes. When I opened them again, the rippling had stopped. I took the photo into my room and stashed it in my nightstand.
Lying in bed that night, I thought about how fortunate I was for having parents who actually wanted a daughter. Of course, I’d heard about female infanticide—about unwanted baby girls found dumped in train stations and public restrooms in China, about baby girls suffocated, starved, thrown down wells, or left to die of exposure to the elements—but it had never occurred to me that my own ancestors might have been guilty of this. And though my mother’s life had not been under threat, her gender had been a disappointment to her family. What toll, I wondered, had this taken on her sense of self-worth?
Later, I heard a baby crying. The sound emanated from my nightstand. I tried to ignore it, but the cries grew increasingly louder. So I opened the drawer and retrieved the photo, fixing my eyes on the pond. Two faces emerged from the water. Then I heard a voice.
“My father was a young, impoverished farmer when he left China for Taiwan,” the voice said, “but in Taiwan, his luck turned. He made a fortune in farming and quickly became a prominent and influential man. After that, he married my mother, a sweet-natured girl from a good family who had ‘golden lotus’ three-inch-long feet, which made her especially desirable. The only thing my father wanted from his new bride was a son, and he expected her to give him one.
“But my mother proved to be a disappointment. After almost seven years of marriage, she had not become pregnant. My father told himself he would give her another year. If there was no pregnancy within that time, he would take a concubine. Luckily, a few months later, my mother became pregnant with me. My father was overjoyed. He treated my mother like a queen during her pregnancy, showering her with gifts and affection. And while I was in the womb, my mother sang to me. That’s how I knew she loved me.
“My birth took place on a stormy night—a bad omen. The labor was long and difficult, and there were moments when I thought my mother and I wouldn’t make it, but surprisingly we pulled through. The next thing I knew, I was in this bright, clamorous world. My mother was understandably too tired to hold me. I was tired too; all I wanted to do was sleep. But one of the servants who had helped with the delivery handed me to my father. I looked into his eyes and I saw his disappointment. In an irritated tone, he muttered, ‘There must be some mistake.’ He then handed me back to the servant. ‘I asked for a son,’ he said. ‘Why has heaven cursed me with a useless female? Take her to the garden. Drop her in the pond. I don’t want her.’
“The servant considered giving me away to a family that might want a daughter, but there was little demand for baby girls back then. Girls were a burden, and the birth of a girl was nothing to celebrate. Also, she feared the consequences of disobeying my father. So she took me into the garden and dropped me in the pond. I died quickly and quietly. But my spirit lingered in the water.
“I hung around because I wanted to see my mother again. To hear her sing again. To be held by her. Because even though I wasn’t technically alive, I still missed her. Where was she? I wondered. Why hadn’t she come to see me yet? Hadn’t she heard about my drowning? I waited and waited but she never appeared. Almost no one came near the pond. They were afraid of it, I suppose. Afraid of me.
“One day, I saw a figure sitting on one of the rocks that lined the pond. Was it my mother? Had she come to see me at last? Decades had passed without my knowing. My mother had died without my knowing, followed by my father. Even all the former servants were gone. A new generation lived here now. My father’s son, the one born after me, had inherited the estate, and it was his son, my nephew, who now peered into the water, though I didn’t know it at the time. I peered back at him, suddenly conscious of my loneliness, of all the years I had spent waiting to be seen.
“I made the water swirl. The young boy noticed. He could see me! He gazed in awe, leaning closer and closer until he lost his balance and fell into the water. The boy struggled to stay afloat. It appeared he couldn’t swim. I tried to help. I tried to make splashes loud enough for someone to hear. That’s all I could do. Because without a body, you can’t do much in the physical world.
“Eventually someone heard. A girl came running toward the water. But there were too many lily pads in the pond that day, and they enshrouded the boy. I continued making splashes near him, but by the time he floated up to the surface, it was too late.
“Life is unfair. Take it from me, your great-aunt. I should know.”
A little before dawn, I awoke from my dream, gasping for air. I heard my mother rattling around in the kitchen and I joined her there. She was leaning against the counter while a kettle boiled on the stove. There was a dazed look on her face, and under her eyes there were dark pouches, as if she hadn’t slept.
When she saw me standing in the doorway, she said, “Why are you up so early? You couldn’t sleep?”
“I had a weird dream,” I said as I sat down at the round dining table.
She came over to me and placed her warm hand on my shoulder. Then she sat across from me and didn’t move. I shared my dream with her to the sound of steam trying to escape the kettle.
After I’d finished, she said solemnly, “We can’t change the past. All we can do is grieve.”
When the kettle shrieked, my mother got up to turn off the heat. She covered her eyes and wept. Then I wept. We wept for days, weeks, months. We wept until our tears formed a pond where our ancestors could swim, and their stories became fish with deep, dark colors and soft, tender fins.⬤