Stitches: Memoir Excerpt

Afterness

This excerpt appeared in “Asia Literary Review: No.32 Winter 2016” as well as in the Anthology entitled “Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia” published in Hong Kong by After-Party Press in 2016:

*****

STITCHES

by Ember Swift

 

My mother-in-law, Wang Wei, has a key to our flat. She moved to Beijing when I was very pregnant with Echo, our daughter, but she didn’t move in with us as most Chinese mothers-in-law do. Instead, she rented a flat in the same compound, just a building over, because, she said, living with us would be bu fangbian 不方便 (inconvenient). The unspoken reason was our cultural differences, but I didn’t care about the why; I just exhaled, gratefully.

That didn’t stop her from entering our flat first thing in the morning and not leaving until after dinner every day. You see, in Chinese culture, a child’s home must be fully accessible to his or her parents. But for twelve hours a day? There were no boundaries.

She entered our bedroom, a space I think of as private, whenever she wanted. Picture me in there, propped up on the bed in the first few months of awkward motherhood, discreetly breastfeeding my daughter. My mother­-in-law regularly barged in to hover over her suckling grandchild and criticise how I was holding her. I once bit my tongue so hard it bled.

On one of those early days, I came back to the room from the shower only to find my bed fully made, my recently stepped-out-of clothes retrieved from the floor and neatly folded on the bed and a puttering mother-in-law still in the room. Even when I clung to my towel, humiliated that she had just folded my dirty underwear, it still took her a good three minutes to get the message that I wasn’t going to get dressed in front of her.

It took a lot of getting used to – this culture, these presumptions. When she had finally retreated to her flat at night, I barked several times at my husband about this absence of privacy, her kindness in helping us with domestic chores notwithstanding. Eventually, he spoke to her. Somehow that produced an unspoken code: if the door is closed or the interior curtains on the outer rooms are drawn, she doesn’t come in. Not anymore.

You see, our flat has windowed doors and walls on the inner walls of each of our outer rooms, which are the only rooms that get the sunlight. Without those interior windows, our central living areas would never get any natural light.

She’s the one who stitched the curtains.

*****

Wang Wei is sitting at our table sipping green tea. She has chosen a small teapot from Guo Jian’s collection – a brown earthenware one with a cute pouting lip for a spout. It sits before her on the bamboo tea tray, wet from having been heated with boiling water. The little teapot is overflowing with the second pouring over its leaves, the first having been both to wash the leaves and rinse out the cups and pot. Even its outside had been doused in boiling water.

‘The dust has to come off the teapot first!’ she said, clicking her tongue at the triangular glass shelf that lacks regular dusting.

My daughter is playing on the floor with some blocks and my swollen midriff and I are sitting next to her. I’m repeating the names of their colours to her in English, trying desperately to infuse her environment with this household’s minority language.

Dinner has just ended. It is just the three of us, like most nights, because Guo Jian is out. If he shares a meal with me once a week, it’s an occasion. I’ve already whisked the dishes away and washed them, swatting away my mother-in-law’s protests. I now know, after several experiences of her backlash criticism, that these are her polite protestations; my act of washing up is evidence that I dong shi 懂事 (know what’s right and wrong). She, the culinary queen, made the meal of course, so I should clean up. Besides, she rules the kitchen whenever she’s at our house. I have tried and failed to maintain dominion over my cooking space.

The point that it’s technically my kitchen is moot. She may not live here, but she has deemed anything not Chinese strange and foreign. She’s particularly prejudiced against cinnamon. Once she fished out and discarded all the paper labels in my glass canisters of dried goods from Canada, calling them ‘rubbish’.

‘Those were labels!’ I said, horrified. ‘They tell me what’s in the jars!’

‘There are no words on them!’ she squawked, defensively.

‘Yes there are,’ I said, fishing them out of the bin. ‘Look, right here! English words!’

She hadn’t registered these as language. To her, with no Chinese characters, there was simply no language present, just visual design.

She didn’t apologize for that, either. Apologies are not her style. She is a matriarch, after all, and she would lose too much face if she were to admit errors. As a result, I spent the next six months unsure as to whether I was making gluten-free, rye or wheat-flour bread, and having to stick my finger into the white powdered canisters to know if I was scooping up baking soda, sugar or salt. I had to laugh. But I haven’t always.

While her food is delicious, her organizational habits in a kitchen are infuriating. She puts unwashed pots on the floor; she rarely refrigerates leftovers; once I found a bowl of something I was partway through making balanced on the mouth of the rubbish bin in order to make more room on the countertop. She keeps vegetables in their plastic bags until they’re sweating with condensation. She stubbornly refuses to use my vegetable or fruit baskets, bought from Ikea and in plain view. Instead, I discover rotting vegetables on the floor beside the hot water heater in winter, or a bag of greens buried within my pots inside the cupboard. The soy sauces and cooking oil also seem to live on the floor when she’s around, leaving rings from their dripping sides on the tiles that then stick to the bottom of my socks.

‘Wear tuoxie!’ she says, when I complain.

She is constantly solving floor issues with the idea of slipper-wearing, a deflection of the point – another thing she’s extremely good at. But she came here to help us, so my complaints must be delicate. Knowing her has been an enormous lesson in patience. Sometimes I’ve failed miserably.

She is not in a good mood today. We fought last night. It was about my work schedule and why she feels overworked as the ‘helper’, but it wasn’t about that for me; it was about the absentee third party here – so absent that he has become the third party. She swats at my mention of him, as if he were an errant fly invading the conversation. To her, I have obligations to this household and to the kids; but he’s a man.

The sexism, once again, makes my skin crawl.

I have planned a dinner with my friend at the end of this week. I haven’t gone out in the evening hours in months. I have negotiated with Guo Jian to stay home with our daughter and to put her to bed and he agreed because he knows better not to fight me on this. If I were keeping track of the nights he’s gone out and insisted he repay each one to me with my own outings, he wouldn’t leave the house for at least six months.

The problem is not really our inequalities at night. I prefer staying home, to be honest. The problem is the enabler—the mother-in-law—who grumbles about my going out because she feels it forces her to stay later, see her grandchild safely washed up and tucked in, supervised.

This is how the fight went yesterday:

“You don’t have to stay late, Ma. Just leave after dinner,” I told her.

“He doesn’t know how to take care of children,” she said, clicking her tongue.

“He needs a chance to learn,” I snapped back.

“I think you should go out with your friends in the daytime. What if she wakes up and wants her mother? What then? A good mother is available to her children. I never went out at night. If I had, my parents would have lectured me up and down.”

The ball of violence that bubbles up in my body in the face of such double standards is like a churning, backed-up, overflowing toilet. Toxic.

I stopped speaking. Wisely.

During that fight last night, rather than continue to argue with her, I chose a quieter, more passive-aggressive approach, which is typically Chinese. But, keep in mind, it’s not considered passive-aggressive in this culture; it’s simply more respectful to be indirect. In fact, by not being direct about these issues, I’m directly addressing them. This, I’ve learned from the best:

“Thank you for your opinion. I’ve heard it clearly. But, you’ve worked hard enough today, Ma. Go home and take a rest.”

In my culture, these first two sentences are mildly rude, or perhaps better termed “dismissive.” But in a culture that believes the older generation sets the standards, choosing to acknowledge the opinion, even asserting I’ve heard it, but pointedly not identifying it as right or the one I’ll follow is, I admit, rather ballsy. It immediately showed her that I’m not a pushover. This could have generated more of her defensiveness or, worse, her pushy insistent repetition of points as though the more times she repeats herself, the more chances she has to convince me, but I buffered that position with the two important trailing sentences about working too hard and needing a rest. These were also strategically placed, as they soften the sting of what could have been viewed as my dismissal of her opinion (and that would have been accurate!). Because, let’s be honest here: there’s no hiding my disgust for her sexist views, no matter how politely it’s framed in her language. Regardless, that courtesy is required in Chinese culture, especially when speaking with the older generation. Or so I’ve learned the hard way.

Fearing I’ve possibly crossed a line, I continued with a few more softeners:

“Thank you for the meal. Thank you for all the help. Without you, we would be much worse off, but I can handle things here now and I don’t want to fight with you. Whether or not I go out in the evening this week is between me and Guo Jian.”

She did leave, in a huff, hinges left rattling to mark her exit. Verbal softeners clearly aren’t soft enough to protect our door frame.

I’m so grateful she didn’t move in with us.

So, today, the fight still hangs between us, stale and anxious. The rooms need airing like after a long stretch of smog-forced closed windows. Echo has been whiny as a result—a sensitive little one—and the little boy who is stewing in my belly has been doing backflips all day making me feel a little woozy. I have just a few weeks to go before I will take Echo and the pregnant belly back to Canada to prepare for the overseas birth—hopefully my dream birth, unlike Echo’s hard hospital one in China—and I can’t wait to get away from Wang Wei. I don’t even mind that I’m going back alone without Guo Jian. He’ll join us closer to the baby’s due date and it’s just as well. In an English-speaking environment, he’s more work than a toddler.

My mother-in-law sighs a huge sigh. She is hopelessly dramatic. She stands up from her tea tray and walks into the kitchen where I hear her moving things around noisily–unnecessarily. She expresses her disapproval by speaking to me with pots and pans, not words. In Chinese, the word for indifferent is literally the combination of two characters: cold (leng) and desert (mo). How perfect. There’s nothing that makes a person feel more neglected than being ignored—deserted in the cold desert. It makes my chest constrict. I believe in open communication, not belabored negative haze. No amount of advocacy gets me that, however; she only speaks when she’s ready. The more I push, the more desertification our relationship endures.

I sigh in mimicry. I know she can hear me. I don’t disguise that it’s in reaction to her sigh—I even place it in the same pitch in my throat for emphasis—and I continue playing with my daughter until my mother-in-law is gathering her things and readying herself to go. She leaves without slamming the door—already an improvement. Just before leaving, she turns and says:

“Don’t forget to make sure she’s warm at night. Get up a few times and check that she hasn’t kicked off her blankets. It’s a mother’s job to prevent her child from freezing in the night.”

Then she is gone, pointedly making it impossible for me to respond by just pulling the door shut as punctuation. I have been getting these kinds of condescending tidbits of parenting advice for twenty-one months now, so I’m long past having my competence insulted by them, but they’re still annoying; in any case, the relief to see her finally gone is my primary emotion.

I notice she left me the teapot and tea service to tidy up, which is quite out of character. I pessimistically register that she has likely done this on purpose, in protest. The spout of the teapot is no longer cute. Having a disappointing daughter-in-law unwilling to simply nod and accept the traditional Chinese ways is, well, very unfortunate for her.

But we are stuck with each other. Tied in matrimony. Knotted together. No one ever marries a person; I married a family.

I leave the tea service where it is, as counter protest.

*****

Since my daughter’s arrival, my visits back to Canada always include a mass purchase of secondhand kids’ clothes in solid colours. I also enjoy dungarees with buckles, plain black patent leather shoes, leotards, snow suits, etc. – you just can’t find those kinds of kids’ clothes in China. Chinese children’s fashion looks like it was all donated by the circus.

When I return to Beijing, I pull out new acquisitions from my swollen suitcase, its insides spilling into our living room, and I listen as my mother-in-law deems the garments ‘not warm enough’ or ‘uncomfortable’ or made from materials ‘not good for the skin’. As the older generation, it is her job to be in charge of all things. My desire to dress my own child is quite obviously out of line. I clearly must be stopped.

When I do it anyway and she protests, I play a familiar card in reverse: ‘It’s cultural,’ I say. ‘In my culture, because I’m the mother, I make the decisions.’

She pretends she hasn’t heard me.

They say that fashion speaks volumes. Maybe our egos are just stitched into the seams of everything we wear or stuff our children’s limbs into, stubbornly. My daughter’s wardrobe is deafening. It’s like a screaming cultural debate.

In China, the word ‘fashion’ has come into the lexicon and retained its English pronunciation, itself a rare occurrence. Few English words have been absorbed into Chinese, so the fashion industry should be patting its own well-dressed back for this.

What’s funny is that it has been reconstructed as an adjective rather than a noun. People will say, ‘na hen 那很 fashion: That’s really fashion,’ about a fashionable outfit.

When I first met Guo Jian, he regularly pulled out new outfits – the guy has twice the volume of clothes that I do – and asked me if I liked his new fashion shirt or jeans or boots. Before we went out, I watched him working the runways between our flat’s mirrors assessing his colour schemes and ensemble choices. He has more matching bags than I can count. His shoes fill four storage containers. His T-shirts alone, if piled one on top of the other on the floor, would easily reach up to my chest.

Fashionable,’ I’d say, gently trying to correct the use of the word, but he was too busy getting ready and I was too amused to push grammar.

Eventually I started to wonder if the word ‘fashionable’ really existed in English. It sounded strange in my mouth, like my own linguistic invention. Everyone kept using ‘fashion’ as an adjective, even on television, and one day I accidentally did the same while speaking Chinese to a friend of Guo Jian’s. It tumbled out and its incorrect use had no impact whatsoever on the conversation. Because, in fact, I had used it correctly by Chinese standards. It wasn’t wrong here.

‘Incorrect’ is culturally subjective. Rules differ; standards aren’t universal. One thing from one culture can be absorbed and then redefined by another. While at first it’s an exchange (like the word ‘fashion’ as it travelled into this language), once the borders have been crossed, the ownership rights shift, too. The new owner gets to make the decisions.

It’s a bit like giving someone the gift of a tablecloth and then returning later to discover that they’ve cut up the fabric and used it to line their drawers. There’s nothing to say. It was their gift, their right to determine its use. But a small part of you can’t help but feel injured.

Then again, language mutates. It changes, even within the same culture. So when this happens across cultures, who am I to get all ‘cut up’ about it?

Maybe I’m sensitive because that’s what happened to me, too – me and my Western standards. But who’s holding the scissors? The culture? Guo Jian? His mother?

Me?

*****

Last year, Wang Wei stitched a pair of denim overalls purchased in Canada that were too long for my daughter because Echo loved the ‘pretty flowers’ embroidered on the bib and the fasteners she could manipulate. The message in this stitching was this: even though they’d been blacklisted as ‘uncomfortable,’ she was going to permit Echo to wear them because a granddaughter’s desires trump a daughter-in-law’s. I dressed her in them often, with a satisfied grin.

I pulled them out again this winter and held them up to show my mother-in-law while she was cooking, asking her if it would be all right if I took down the stitched cuffs. That was my first mistake.

‘She can’t wear those this year! They’re too small!’

She scuttled this response into the space between us, hastily, turning away from me the moment she pitched her words from her mouth. She completely evaded the question. That’s because I had directly addressed the stitching in the first place. I exposed her silent compromise – a loss of face for her. I left the kitchen, a familiar barb of frustration scratching sharply from inside my right temple. There must be a seam-ripper in this house somewhere, I thought.

I keep bringing up his absenteeism in the realm of childcare. The presence of his mother ‘to replace him’ is not acceptable to me, I tell him. He and his mother may share a birthday and too many traits, but that doesn’t make them interchangeable. He’s still the father. He’s still the one who should be present. These are my Western values – standards I can’t allow my current Eastern environment to silence, like a mouth sewn shut.

*****

It’s Saturday. He’s spontaneously decided to devote the whole day to the family. I do a double-take. Wordlessly. I’m sitting at the kitchen table messing with Echo’s overalls, trying to get the cuffs unstitched with a pair of scissors. Guo Jian comes over and calmly removes the scissors from my hands. And the jeans.

‘What are you doing?’ I am irritable at being interrupted.

‘I’ll do it. The scissors are too close to Echo. I can do it.’

His sudden need to control the safety sphere around his child reminds me of his mother, laced with suspicion about my competence. Whatever, I think, but don’t protest, grateful for one less task. Hands idle, I watch him, curiously.

‘Besides, Echo thinks these are her most fashion jeans, right?’ He winks at me as he deftly removes the remaining stitches from the left trouser leg. He has undone the cuff in half the time it took me to do the right side.

We decide to go to the aquarium. Echo happily puts on her overalls with the ‘pretty flowers’ so that she can go see the ‘big fish’. The sun is bright and I throw open all the flat’s curtains and flood the house with natural light. Guo Jian dances with his daughter in the sunbeams. She is all drama and poses which makes us both start to laugh. The giggling escalates until we’re doubled over in stitches, Echo squealing and crawling all over us in a bath of glee.

Maybe he’s changing.

*****

When my daughter is sleeping, Wang Wei often sits on a low stool in front of her Chinese soap operas, sewing or knitting. She’s a wizard at both. The wool or thread spirals around the needles in a helix of creation and I am mesmerized.

Stitching is really just a means of attachment. Several pieces of fabric, arranged together, and then we cover ourselves up with these attachments. We call them clothing. We see each garment as a new whole. Itself.

Likewise, fabric neatly stitched to hang along a rod before glass does not change the fact that the window or door is still an entranceway, curtain drawn or not. I have grown so attached to this idea of separateness that I believe I am alone when I shut myself in – a singular, attachment-free being in my own space.

But people assembled together by blood or marriage, as incompatible and ill-matched as they might seem, are nevertheless invisibly tied by a series of complicated stitches. Especially after children arrive. If you take family and break it apart – willingly or forcibly – it will leave an indisputable scar, just as stitches do to flesh.

But which scars are deeper: the ones from the stitching or those from the ripping? This is my current question. Behind it rings another: Am I brave enough to find out?

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