Jiakai Chang

            “Jiadi and Jiakai, This is an awkward topic coming from your mom, but I need to let you know that one of your cousins in Taiwan, who is a junior in college, got pregnant and has to quit school and become a mom. So just wanted to remind you both to protect yourself and your partners so that you won’t have to make tough decisions later.”

            I’m sitting in a small Thai restaurant in my quiet suburb’s slightly less quiet downtown, getting dinner with some friends, when I see it.

            My mom doesn’t text often––most of our brief exchanges are reminders to take cold medicine or confirmation that I received a package she sent from San Diego, and our most recent FaceTimes have been about my classes, my job search, and my health. I think she wants to know about my life, about other things besides my career and the possibility of my dying of the common cold in a dirty frat house, but I can’t tell for sure. Maybe it’s up to me to tell her.

            It’s been like this for as long as I can remember. Even though she taught Chinese at my high school, I tried my best to hide my personal life from her––she found out about one girlfriend, but that was only because of a talkative mutual friend in Intro II Chinese. We never had “the Talk™,” as American families like to call it: really, the first time I realized my parents were also sexual beings was when I was ten and noticed my dad buying a 24-count Trojan Pleasure Pack from Costco.

            Opening the text, I have no idea how to respond. Do I just say “Ok, thanks” like I do to most of her texts? But most of her texts are links to internship applications or reminders to “stay healthy and work hard!” Here, the classic “I know” or “okay” seem like they wouldn’t be appropriate, but anything more eloquent or long-winded is not in my vocabulary, not with my mother. So I say nothing.

            My brother doesn’t answer her either.

            She loves his girlfriend. He brought her home over the summer, and they immediately hit it off. She let them share a room, but, as far as she knew, they slept in separate beds. She was equally welcoming to my sister’s boyfriend, and even makes sure to visit his bakery whenever she drives up to the Bay Area. Maybe I should tell her about mine. She probably suspects by now, but I have yet to confirm that the girl I call my “best friend” is really something more than that. I guess I’ll have to tell her eventually. After all, there was the text, with its broad assumption, that I had a partner, staring me in the face. It’s hard, I guess, to hide things from your mother.

The moon and you appear to be
So near and yet so far from me
And here am I on a night in June
Reaching for the moon and you

            It is a little chilly outside, and greyer than you’d expect from Sunny San Diego––it’s so early that the marine layer hasn’t yet burned off, but it’ll clear soon. We’re driving to school in our green Prius, and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Reaching for the Moon” comes on the radio. It’s a part of their 100th birthday celebration setlist: a whole day dedicated to playing Ella––a very special occasion. We listen to this jazz station every morning on our commute, driving in silence as Joe Kocherhans and Ken Borgers introduce Ellington and Basie, Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan.

            I know the song already. It’s on one of my Spotify playlists, the one dedicated to sad love songs. I made it in freshman year, after a girl my mom knows only as “one of my friends from school” broke my heart.

            Hearing it then, half-asleep in the passenger seat while my mom drives, it’s not the sadness I notice. There’s a wanting, a longing, a distance. It’s a love song, yes. But Ella never says “I love you.”

            I don’t think we ever said it either, until after I graduated high school. For four years, we made that commute together, morning and evening. She drove me to soccer tournaments, trombone lessons, and plays at the local theatre. When I got sick, she flipped me onto my stomach and put suction cups on my back and needles in my hands, turned on the diffuser and tucked me into bed. But we never said it.

            It’s not that I don’t want to answer the text. I just don’t know how. I am sure if she’d sat us down and said it in person, my brother and I would feel obligated to say “yes, I know, yes, I know.” So maybe it’s the fact that she’s sharing this wisdom over text that feels strange. There is no obligation to show I care when I am two thousand miles away.

            I went back home for winter break. One morning, I woke up and went downstairs to find my mom crying in the kitchen. She’d just received news from Taiwan: her grandma had passed away. In the late afternoon we drove down to the beach and hiked up on top of the cliffs, going to our favorite lookout to watch the sunset.

            It’s so hard to bridge practiced distances. There is a particular rhythm to the communication that settles into a relationship as it matures. At this point, it’s too late to reply to that text. Since then, she’s sent me the link for an internship in DC and the hours for walk-in career counseling at my school, she’s called me multiple times and asked how class was and if I was staying healthy, and she’s updated me on the wellbeing of our geriatric pets. For my part, I’ve sent her cookie recipes and articles on cafés in San Diego. We don’t call often, but we always have things to say to each other. But recently, at the ends of the calls, she says “Love you, bye.” This is new. I say it back.

 


 

Jiakai Chang is a third-year student from San Diego, California studying Journalism and Creative Writing. He is currently in the market for a new mechanical pencil.