Hua Jiao (花椒). Szechwan pepper, literally flower pepper. The outer pod of the tiny fruit widely grown and consumed in Asia as a spice; produces on the tongue a tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation like the effect of carbonated drinks or a mild electrical current; numbs the tongue in preparation for hot spice.
His name was Mao. “Like the dictator?” I asked when my Chinese mother first told me about the young man, before I met him and the black hair fell across his eyes, curtaining their coldness. I remember how he bowed low to the ground. If I’d had more wherewithal, I’d have known right away that something was amiss. But I did not. I was barely twenty, new to Shangai, transfixed by his movement, sinuous as a tiger. When we sat for dinner, I sneaked glances at his angled face through the white dumpling’s steam as he gouged it with a chopstick and muddied it with soy. He felt immediately familiar to me; back then, I didn’t realize that what I recognized in him was the pepper, so like my own at the time—all pepper, no flower. I remain in country to this day to protect my sons from the pepper they receive at Mao’s hand. But let me back up.
My name is Hua Jiao, flower pepper. These days, though on the outside I look like every other old woman in China, on my inside I am more aligned with my American name, Gracie, given me by my adoptive parents who brought me as a baby to the United States, specifically, to the deep South where the same white church is found on every corner, and Thankful Baptist is practically a franchise. I ought to be thankful, they often reminded me, the American parents who changed my name. To their thinking, it was doing me a favor to rescue me from China, to grant me American citizenship, an intact family, opportunities. The mom had longed for a child, unable to conceive her own, so she hurled herself into my rescue with frenetic intensity. Oh, how I resisted! To my mind, America was like the new mom’s smile—painted on, pasted on, red like fake love. How I longed to wipe that smile from her face! I used to imagine the red mouth gaping wide, stretching over the top of her head, the smile itself swallowing her whole.
“How can you call China home?” the mom complained when I did not list her in a family tree project my sophomore year of high school, instead detailing various branches of the Chinese lineage I’d spent the previous summer researching. “You lived there for one year when you were a tiny baby. One year! You are fifteen years old, Gracie, you can’t possibly remember.” That’s where she was wrong. I did remember, played it out in my mind like the old-fashioned film reels Mr. Lesh showed us in third period history. I suppose it was my flair for drama that dredged up one particular memory as a series of grainy celluloid squares, but I knew it was real: the winding black staircase, stretching round and round, reaching to what felt like the heavens; up, up, up, the sensation of my baby face, my tummy, buoyed with excitement to see my Chinese mother. I squirmed in the foreign arms of the American mom, struggled against them, beat them with frantic fists, and I felt the moment she gave up, hold loosened, tension released. I clawed toward the wooden door with its green, peeling paint, thrust my small body at the familiar face peering from behind a taught chain as I sputtered in Mandarin—the language of comfort, of rightness, of home.
I clutched my Chinese family tree drawing and, with the particular angst only a teenager can muster, narrowed my dark eyes at the American mom, my Asian eyes that would never be big and wide like her blue ones. “It helps to know what’s not home, as a basis for comparison.” I flung the words at her like darts. The counselor had a fancy label she put on me—Reactive Attachment Disorder; all I knew was I felt lonely and displaced, that I craved to fit in. Against all reason, I attributed every distress to the event that occurred when I was thirteen months old, when the adoptive mom took me from my true mother. My weapon-words hit their target, and I knew it. I did feel a prickle of remorse when I glimpsed the pain welling in those Miss America eyes, but I turned away—from her, from compassion—flung long black hair over my shoulder, the hair I brushed five hundred strokes a day, and rinsed with rice water the way it was described in the books I borrowed from the library on my American library card, books like Traditional Chinese Beauty Secrets and Timeless Herbs for Timeless Beauty. I knew it ground the mom’s nerves like pearl powder when she’d enter the kitchen laden with shopping bags and find me digging chopsticks in a rice bowl, poring over a volume on folding origami or Chinese writing.
“Can’t you just try?” was her constant refrain. Try—such a loaded word. Try what? To be her real daughter? Try encompassed conformity, fitting in, blending like American cheese, processed until it was formless and runny, without taste or texture.
“The kids at school probably think she doesn’t even speak English,” said my brother Ryan one day as he stood at the kitchen counter making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He was also adopted, and figured he could identify with my issues, considered it his right, his requirement even, to tease me. But I knew even he did not understand, for his adoption was domestic, his skin white as flour.
“Ryan!” The mom hated it when he made comments like that.
He licked peanut butter from the knife. “What? If she’d talk, they wouldn’t think that.”
“Gracie Smith, you are an American citizen,” said the mom. “Why can’t you accept that?”
Once, I discovered a crumpled adoption brochure, Oriental Children in American Homes, stuffed in the back of a kitchen drawer. I smoothed it out on the breakfast table and read my own care instructions as if I were a new puppy. The pamphlet explained how my parents should help me understand and embrace my Asian heritage. I found the following listed under Examples:
- Celebrate Chinese holidays
- Incorporate traditional Chinese foods
- Introduce other adopted Chinese children
Others afflicted with the yellow skin. Only from library books did I learn my coloring was referred to in that way—yellow, like a water-stained book page, or vinegar, or urine. My parents didn’t refer to it at all. They acted as if I were a regular old part of the family along with Ryan, who was in my opinion the most truth-telling of all when he called us The Kids My Parents Bought.
Even as I neared the end of high school, the American mom still sat on the edge of my bed at night, tucked in the covers, kissed my forehead, as if holding onto this ritual kindness like an incantation would somehow break through my resistance. I remember how she’d smile at me hopefully, like a balloon filled with too much air, ready to pop. I stared, brushed away her hand as it tucked the hair behind my ear, rolled my face toward the wall. She must’ve worked hard to keep her expression serene, judging by the weeping I heard through the air vents after she’d turn off my light and go upstairs to my dad. I heard my name in between sobs. It made me feel better if she felt as miserable as I did, if her stomach, like mine, churned and roiled and never settled. I felt no empathy for her as I went to sleep listening to her cry.
It must have been pure exasperation that made the American parents agree to the foreign exchange plan I concocted my junior year at Georgia State. I thought of the old adoption brochure as I spread out study abroad pamphlets on the breakfast table during a weekend home from school. The dad rifled through the literature with characteristic impartiality; he’d always attempted to straddle the divide between the mom and me. “Shanghai? Don’t you want to go somewhere more, I don’t know, cultural? Shanghai is quite westernized, honey, you’re always talking about exploring your heritage.” He popped open a Diet Coke, and scratched his head.
The mom folded a paper napkin and placed it beneath his soda can. By the time I was in college, her eyes had taken on a permanent narrowness ironically like my own. She seemed to have given up, perhaps considering her opportunity to win relationship with me lost once I moved out of the house. She looked directly at me as if in challenge, and said to my dad, “She’s considering Shanghai only.” I did not look away, failing to realize that the very directness of my gaze proved just how American I really was. “She wants to find her mother,” said the mom, her voice acrid with resentment. With mixed satisfaction and regret, I realized that, in her eyes, I had indeed reverted to Hua Jiao.
I whipped my hair so it sheeted down my back, and announced, “Actually, I plan to live with my mother.” They both gaped. Such simple people, I thought. What possessed them to travel all the way to Shanghai to pluck me out in the first place? I was sure they’d only considered the international adoption since it was church-sponsored and -approved, the congregation raising money to shrink wrap, plasticize, evangelicalize me into their very own Mulan doll. “I have been in touch with my mother for several months now. She wants me to come.” I hoped the words would cut.
The lines between the mom’s eyebrows deepened into trenches as she frowned. “How—how did you find her?”
“Not so hard when she was trying to find me, too,” I said, my defiance stinking like rotten meat.
She said nothing. She was so quiet, so still.
The dad had many logistical questions, playing peacemaker, ignoring the relational carnage all around him. “I’m sure that’s a fine arrangement, explore your roots, long as you don’t let the school work slip.” He bent back over a brochure. “Fudan University? Is it accredited? If I’m paying for classes, they’d better be worth something in America.”
I think, at that point, she realized—the American mom who knew me better than I was willing to admit. Believe it or not, the intention wasn’t formed in me, not yet. When I departed the United States, I was packed for two quarters, return flight booked for just before summer vacation.
When I arrived in Shanghai, my Chinese mother did not pick me up at the airport. Instead, she sent her driver who stood in the line with a placard marked Hua Jiao. I was not surprised my mother had a driver; I’d already learned from her Evita-like account of the past two decades not to expect the old front door with the peeling, green paint. Her current husband was an investment banker who seemingly provided all she could want. I soon learned the two things he could not provide: 1.) a son, and 2.) social prominence attainable only through blood relation. My Chinese mother was determined to acquire both.
“Xie xie,” I murmured to the driver outside the airport—thank you—as he hoisted my bags into the trunk of the black car. He smiled, nodded, but remained silent as he opened the door, ushered me into the back seat. As we traveled along the highway into the city, the scene looked like something from an apocalyptic movie, smog close around us, blocking the sun. Clumps of buildings grew denser, until we were passing one city center after another, like twenty Atlantas all crammed into one—futuristic in shining glass and steel. I clutched the seat with both hands as horns blared and drivers zoomed around us as if in amusement park bumper cars. Even with the windows up, I was exposed to the rotten egg stench of burning coal and diesel, mixed with the rancid smell of sewage which collected on the street where men peed out in the open.
When I was delivered from the jarring sounds and smells of the street to my mother’s door inside a thick-walled compound, I floated on waves of jet-lag. I think they provided a buffer to the strangeness of her welcome—the way she swooped in, pulled off my boots, exchanged them for house slippers as the driver deposited my bags in the marble foyer. She sat me at the tall kitchen counter, and brewed green tea that resembled a mug full of grass clippings. She was all business. That’s what I could not process, this detached air about her. Had I been willing to see it, I’d have realized from the first that she lacked true comfort, true nurture. Certainly, she cared for my physical needs, but her underlying agenda was never really hidden. For my part, I was fighting the tide of my entire life up to that point, what I stubbornly perceived as the lack of true mother-love, and I was determined to realize my dream of belonging in Shanghai. That night, I was pleased when my mother fed me hot wonton soup along with the tea, ushered me to a pillowy, down-covered bed in my own suite with a private bath. It wasn’t until the next morning, when I woke to car horns and smog-diffused sunlight, that I realized what had been lacking: My mother had received me perfunctorily, like a visitor to a bed-and-breakfast, instead of like the daughter she hadn’t seen in nineteen years. Despite the spell cast by my determination, I realized there ought to have been at least some ceremony to our reunion.
I brought my inquiries to breakfast. My mother was busy in the kitchen, having breakfasted already on a meal prepared by the ayi who arrived daily to look after the housework. Ayi had set a place for me at the counter with chopsticks and white china. She worked quietly at the sink while my mother chattered to me in Mandarin; having discovered I’d studied the language, she’d decreed full immersion. I sat on the stool before the sparkling white place setting, still bleary from the time change. I asked bluntly in English, “Why did you give me up?”
She paused only momentarily, holding in the air a thin, brown string with which she was tying a potted orchid to a stick of bamboo. I stared at the cord and thought how incomprehensible it was that our two bodies had once been bound together. “Of course you know why. Only one child, no waste it on girl.” She made this remark with no hint of apology, and returned her attention to binding the orchid. When I remained silent, she looked up at me again. She smiled shrewdly, her teeth evidencing a lack of dental care which belied the image she projected with her tailored clothing and her jewels. “I like we try again.”
And I—I took the crumb she offered, and called it a feast.
Classes soon began at Fudan University where I relished in the anonymity of physically blending in with other students on the quad. I made a few friends, young women who took pains to avoid any personal topic over bowls of noodles in the cafeteria, and who covered their mouths when they smiled. In comparison, I felt myself brash, loud, aggressive. At home, my Chinese mother instituted what she considered a subtle program of filing away my American ways as if shaving an unsightly callous, scheduling every bit of my free time not spent sleeping or studying. Her curriculum was quite as intentional as the university’s: teaching me the proper way to serve tea; making treks to the history museum; going over nuances of social decorum; visiting the hairdresser, the spa, even the dermatologist who erased traces of sun exposure from my face. She stocked my bathroom with date oil for shiny hair, and skin cream with crushed pearl for whiteness. All my life I’d sought these things by myself; to suddenly have my own mother taking care of me felt heavenly.
“Your name,” she said, telling me what I’d longed to know. “Hua Jiao. You are numbing spice. Use Chinese manners as flower, before pepper.” She rubbed cream into my feet, bent forward, clucked at their large size.
The root of her care for me was not, of course, love, but something far more selfish. You see, she knew Mao. For good reason, she chose him as her entrée into the prominent Sung family, rather than his staid elder brother who held strictly to custom, and married early to a girl of good breeding. My mother knew of Mao’s travels—philandering in foreign countries, despising the requirements of social position set out by his parents. She guessed correctly that my American upbringing would not put off this young man, but rather intrigue him. As for me, if I were supposed to act out the meaning of my name, it also acted upon me: after several months of preparation, when it was time to meet Mao, my palate was sufficiently numb.
The night I met Mao was also the first time I met my mother’s husband. She’d planned the dinner months prior to coincide with her husband’s birthday, a time she knew he’d return to Shanghai from overseas. She needed him to effect a gray presence in the host’s place at table—the illusion of a traditional, patriarchal household of the type which would prove impossible if he really lived daily with my mother. I stood at the top of the stairs waiting for the Sung family’s arrival. Even now, I recall how I smoothed the silk of my body-hugging qípáo, the traditional Chinese banquet dress; it was red, for luck. I listened for my cue. My mother’d instructed me to wait upstairs while she welcomed our guests, and the ayi took their wraps. In the lull after the initial greetings, I began my slow descent, step by careful step, as we’d rehearsed—me thinking the rehearsal was to teach me Chinese customs, her knowing it was to advertise her merchandise.
My eyes met Mao’s right away, his so dark they were nearly black. I forgot to feign demure as I held his gaze descending the full curve of the staircase. When I reached the bottom step, he bowed before I had the chance, long hair falling across his face. He reached for my hand,—now soft from the skin treatments—turned it over, kissed the palm. When I looked toward his parents, their faces had reddened in embarrassment at their son’s breach of etiquette. I felt my cheeks flame accordingly beneath the pearl powder.
Throughout all eight courses of the meal—stir-fried prawns, shark fins soup, roasted suckling pig, sea coconut with jelly—Mao continued to run roughshod over the norms of decorum my mother had so carefully taught me. He seemed to do it with intention, cavalier in flaunting his boorishness. Although he had been directed to the seat across from mine, he chose to sit right beside me, whispering in my ear that the other side of the table was much too far away. If conversation were an art, that night Mao was like a child scrawling black crayon across a beautiful canvas, further shaming his parents. By the time the dumplings were served, his remarks were zinging toward his family with particular cruelty as if he wanted for them shi mianzi, to lose face.
“My father used to be profitable in exports.” Mao said as he bit into the suckling pig. “Until he put me in charge of client relations.”
The elder Sung did not speak, but his eyes flared warning.
Mao laughed humorlessly. “We all know that business has gone to hell.”
By the time the ayi brought in the tray of rice liquor, Mao was resting his hand on my bare thigh, which had been revealed by the long slit on the side of my qípáo. I was shocked at his brazenness and, at the same time, thrilled by the attention being paid me by this handsome young man from a good Chinese family. I chose to interpret his churlishness as verve.
Without ceremony, Mao suddenly shoved back his chair and extended his hand to me. “Shall we?” he asked in his barely accented English. My eyes flew to my mother’s. She gave a barely discernible nod, though her husband frowned. Mao’s parents looked stricken, but remained silent, and stared at their plates.
I smiled up at this man who both frightened and compelled me. I took his hand. He stalked toward the French doors, led me onto the balcony. I wanted him to want me, but by that point even I was feeling some alarm. Once outside, I could see past the thick wall of the compound to the lighted shops on the street side where, even at that late hour, vendors sold whole fish and yellow bags of roasted chestnuts. The stench of garbage was strong in the night air.
“Hua Jiao,” Mao said. He ran his hand through my hair.
I cast down my eyes, tried to back up, create proper distance between his body and mine. I felt the silk, tight against my hips.
Mao gripped the back of my neck. He pushed me against the balcony rail in a gesture that was on the knife-edge of hostile. I tensed, raised my hands, pushed against his chest.
But then he said, “You are my flower.” He kissed me, and I kissed him back.
My mother clapped her hands in glee when I announced my engagement to Mao. The rondo to her finely tuned symphony proceeded allegro, solidifying her place at the top tier of Shanghainese society and providing her, finally, with a son.
I wrote to my parents back in the States that I would be taking a break from classes, as I had decided to get married. I half-expected, perhaps even hoped, they’d fly to China in protest, and drag me back home with them; as I have said, I think the mom had guessed, even before I left home, that it would come to this. But I received from my parents only lukewarm congratulations, along with thanks for my future in-laws’ offer of plane tickets to attend the wedding celebration. Within months, preparations had been made. My marriage to Sung Mao was imminent.
I met my parents at the airport. Though my black hair blended in with the crowd of Chinese at the exit from customs, the mom spotted me immediately. She dropped the handle of her large rolling suitcase and ran through the receiving line to embrace me. “Gracie.” I surprised myself by leaning into the softness of the name. Then she held me at arms’ length. She frowned. “What happened to your cheek?”
My hand flew to cover a bruise which had purpled beneath my makeup. Neither my Chinese mother nor my future mother-in-law had mentioned it, so I’d naively believed it to be concealed. My eyes darted to my dad who’d picked up the dropped bag, to my brother Ryan who trailed behind him, then back to the mom. My mom. Her blue eyes widened as she cupped my cheeks ever so gently, and her right thumb softly covered the mark. “Gracie.”
Britt Tisdale has written for publications including Leadership, Group, Ignite Your Faith, Rock & Sling, Maggie Mae, and a forthcoming southern writers anthology. She graduated from Seattle Pacific University with a MFA (Fiction) in August 2012, and continues her work as a mental health counselor/creativity consultant in downtown Orlando, Fla. Britt has written a first novel, Arden Alive, and begun work on a second. You can find her at www.alivestudios.net.