L.A. International, 1996. A delay of the flight to Seoul en route to Hong Kong stranded us at the terminal, so my mother and I waited, carry-ons at our feet.
I didn’t know what to expect in Hong Kong and only retained faint impressions of people swarming en masse. My attitude—try to have no expectations and treat it like any other vacation. The only problem—spending time with my mother was anything but relaxing.
I put down the book, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear, by Ralph Keyes and looked at my mom. So strange to see her new hairdo. Prior to the trip, she told me Hong Kong would be hot in August, but the short hair and perm came as a complete shock. The length coupled with the artificial texture made me think of a huge ball of steel wool atop her head.
I said, “You still haven’t told me all the people we’re going to meet in Hong Kong.”
“We see many people,” my mother replied.
“And my father? When will I get a straight answer about him?”
She studied the vacant seat across from her, as if contemplating a matter of great importance. “Something I never tell you about Hong Kong. When I marry to your father, I work at cleaning hotels. I was carry you in my stomach, but I still working. I am hard worker, you know.”
She shifted her gaze to me and I nodded. “Late at night, I take bus go home to your father. I get out, and a man, I never see him, he grab from behind and choking me. He choke and choke.” She clenched her hands together and yanked them back and forth to simulate the assault. “I no can breathe, and I think I going to die. Then he stop.” She sliced her hand through the air like a machete. “He tear the necklace from my neck, take my purse, so I turn to see him. You know what he do?” Disgust burrowed into her brow. “He punch me in the face because I look at him! He punch me and run. I try to chase, but he very fast. I yell and yell, but nobody come. That the way in Hong Kong, nobody helping.”
I could picture her, pregnant and nearly strangled to death, picking herself up off the cement, and alone, in the middle of the night, giving chase to a vicious attacker. That was my mother.
The image was clear, but I could not feel for her. It brought to mind a story on the six o’clock news or a segment from America’s Most Wanted, not the personal recounting of a traumatic incident happening to someone I cared about. And guilt flooded over me for what I didn’t feel.
I stared at the bag on the ground. Why had she told me this? Why now?
The third hour of our flight and only eight more to endure. My lower back throbbed and my hip ached, but I didn’t want to fight through an obstacle course of knees and trays to get up again. Normally, I liked to fly and enjoyed the takeoffs and landings the most. Maybe it stemmed from my initial trip to the US. Not old enough to understand the circumstances, I recalled the sensation of a carnival ride. Now, as I watched a flight attendant help a doe-eyed boy adjust his seat belt across the aisle, another memory surfaced. Young, and without my mom, I wasn’t scared. A uniformed woman, perfumed with the scent of fresh-cut flowers, kept bending down to check on me.
I turned to my mother. “Did I ever fly by myself when I was a boy?”
She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “Hard to remember.”
But she came armed with an extraordinary memory. My stepfather could attest to that. In their fights, she would remind him in excruciating detail about a transgression committed years before. Her recall, like a poisoned tip at the head of a long spear, reached back to one’s earliest mistakes. I had been on the receiving end enough to know.
“A flight attendant kept reassuring me. She was very friendly,” I said.
“Let me think. Ah . . . I think so. I was hurry go somewhere. For some reason, you not go, so I send for you.”
What could possibly have been important enough to abandon a child on an airplane?
An Asian flight attendant offered refreshments. My mom asked for a soda, and I requested water. She sipped from her cup, paused, and said, “Pretty face, that one. Eyes very round and nose not flat, but mouth too big.”
She relished picking out every flaw in a woman’s appearance, one of the reasons I never told her about Quyen, a Vietnamese woman I met several months ago. We were getting along; nothing to warrant back flips, except she was the first Asian I ever dated—a major accomplishment achieved through years of painstaking therapy—given my lifelong aversion to anything Asian. Still, Quyen wasn’t Chinese, and I learned my lesson from Donna. Caucasian, separated, and even worse in my mother’s unrelenting, razored scrutiny, Donna came with baggage—two children. So I didn’t let on about Donna, but that didn’t prevent my mom from finding out. The day I chose to take Donna and her kids for a dip in the pool at my parents’ house, my mother happened to come home early from work, something she never did. So I introduced her to Donna and Jonathan and Timothy. Mom was pleasant and engaging, but while Donna changed the children in the bathroom, my mother pulled me into the kitchen and whispered, “If you marry this one, I never speak to you again.” Then she turned and put glasses in the dishwasher as if she had just handed me the recipe for her fried wontons. I never forgave my mother for planting the seed which led to the eventual breakup of that relationship.
Seoul. I departed the plane with my head reeling and a twisted cord of quivering knots in my back. Mom’s peppy gait suggested a willingness to launch into an extended search for the choicest flea markets in the vicinity.
We still needed to kill two hours before the connecting flight to Hong Kong. Worse, in the airport bathroom, I discovered a string of hives mottling my chin and neck.
In the waiting area, my mom peered out the wall of windows to the runway below and said, “We pretty close now.”
“Raymond, I want to say something.”
I looked at her.
“If you see your father, you should give hug,” she said.
She hesitated and avoided eye contact. “Also should give some money, not lot, but is the custom for son your age.”
I was dumbfounded. My mother telling me to embrace and give money to a man who hadn’t so much as written me a note in nearly three decades!
After a long silence, I said, “I’m not going to do that.”
“That the Chinese way.”
“I’m not Chinese.”
She stared at a plane accelerating down the runway and remained silent as it lifted into the air.
(Picture of airplane by Marinelson Almeida Silva)