April Li

Sometimes I am convinced that my mother hates me.

Like now, standing on the sidewalk, tension collecting in the space between us like the Beijing heat, muggy and oppressive. She stares forward, glass dish of congee clutched in her hands. It was hot when she pulled it out of the pressure cooker earlier, but sometime between when we left the apartment, got into the elevator, rode down eighteen floors (or seventeen, because the fourth floor doesn’t exist), and stepped out into the sun, the mushy contents have grown lukewarm. How can the dish even feel hot anymore when the air is already scorching?

I study her profile while she ignores me. It is a portrayal of her that I know well, because I have grown up looking at this image in every car ride of my life, tracing the side of her face with my eyes from the backseat as she drives. It is like an obsession, one that I began cultivating from a very young age. I was obsessed with the planes of her face, obsessed with discovering if any part of her sharp jawline or high cheekbones had translated onto my own visage. I wanted desperately to be handed biological, physical proof that I was her daughter. I wanted desperately for her to turn her head and meet my eyes—I wanted to know if she was thinking of me, obsessed with me, too.

Looking at her now, I wonder if she ever did the same with my grandmother, who’s standing on her other side. If she ever sought to find her own face in the strokes of her mother’s. If her entire body ached for lǎo lǎo to return her glance, if she ever yelled for it in her head, if she ever hoped that through wordless stare alone she could will it to happen; desperately, enduringly, silently.

“Stand up straight,” my mother snaps at me now, without moving her head even an inch.

I glare at her profile, vindicated that she can never punish me for it because she’ll never know, whip my head forward.

My grandmother, with her perfect posture, starts to tell me something about how I need to be neat, should cut my hair, have to stop leaving my laundry up too long.

I stand there, simmering in annoyance and heat, straighten my back in as small of a noticeable increment as possible, and stare ahead.

Look at us, three women in parallel, three generations of quiet female dysfunction.


Finally, an empty pedicab rolls around the street corner. My mom is already waving the driver down, even though he’s dozens of feet away and people are crossing the road in between every which way. I internally roll my eyes at her lack of common sense, her impatience. But somehow, the driver has seen her, and he pulls over to where we are standing. I feel slightly chastised, but I squirrel away the feeling, because no one knows what I was thinking except for me.

We squeeze into the cab: lǎo lǎo, with her wrapped bowl of pickled radishes and meat floss; Mom, with the Tupperware of cooling congee; me, empty-handed, because even though I’m fifteen I’m still somehow too young to be trusted with simple responsibilities. I try to make myself as thin and light as possible so it’s easier for the driver. I’m scared that one of these days, one of these drivers will tell us he can’t pedal the bicycle because we are too heavy. I know if that were to happen, everyone would look at me. So I shrink myself, and empty my thoughts from my head so they don’t weigh anything. The shade above us makes the temperature so much more tolerable already.


I am discovering that growing up is a lesson in learning how to be embarrassed; how to share sympathy with retail workers and waitresses in restaurants when my mother speaks too loudly and asks why our table is still empty. I am learning how to move our shopping cart out of the way in grocery stores, how to tell my mom not to stand in the middle of aisles, how to cringe when she starts giving unnecessary explanations in her rolling English (“They don’t need to hear your life story,” is what I always think in my head, never say).

Actually, I am also learning about self-awareness, how to be embarrassed about the amount of space I take up, how to prove that I’m a civilized person to the random middle-aged ladies in the supermarket, that I know how to be polite and that I’m not an oblivious FOB who doesn’t know how to behave.

Every public excursion is an exercise in this training. I am figuring out how to distinguish myself as a normal person without ever opening my mouth. I am figuring out how standing rigid, creating physical distance, can absolve me of my mother’s actions. I am figuring out how to nudge her to the side when someone’s trying to pass by, how to mutter “shhh” under my breath, but never raise my volume beyond that.

I have learned to never ever ever say, “Mom, no one can understand you when you talk,” like I did that one time when we were in D.C. and she was buying ice-cream for us and her former colleague’s kids, the ones we knew when we lived in Shanghai. I am learning that that results in lectures in the car, finding out about how my mother called every employer in the phone book when they first arrived in America, the way she refused Dad’s help because she needed to prove to the managers that she could speak English, all these things that I never wanted to know about my parents.

I am learning that that leads to the former colleague’s quiet disapproval, her shocked silence vibrating in the air. I am learning the humiliation of her secret satisfaction in knowing her kids would never say such a thing. I am learning the slow burn in my cheeks, the naked shame of my disgrace like a sun glare that makes me unable to meet anyone’s eyes.

(I am learning how to walk the fine line between embarrassment on both counts: to prove to the white strangers that I have lived here since I was four, and to prove to the Asian aunties that I’m not a disgrace, that I’m capable of being an obedient kid—even if I don’t go to Chinese school every Saturday with the rest of them, even if I talk to my parents in English instead of Mandarin.)

Sometimes I think that I’m obsessed with hurting my mother.


My mom is very bad at hiding her emotions. By that I mean there are two situations in which she’s allowed to show emotion, and one of them is when she’s mad at us. The other situation is when she’s sitting with other Chinese women, splitting sunflower seeds and growing wine tipsy. They get to speak and talk loud, the way they do when they’re on the phone with each other and think they have to yell in order for the other person to hear them. Maybe because they are so used to long distances. Maybe because they are thinking of the way the ocean makes voices sound muffled. The women have always liked to gather, to find excuses and holidays and long weekends for potlucks in so and so’s backyard. They like to congregate in church and Chinese school, when someone else is watching their kids. But now us children are getting older, and the mothers are getting caught up in our growing lists of obligations and extracurriculars and the pick-up times from activities that we don’t bother to explain. They are getting caught up in sicknesses and plane rides. My mom is mad at us a lot.

And I think maybe that’s why she’s been especially mad at me lately, why she’s mad at me every time we leave the apartment, get into the elevator, ride down seventeen floors, and step out into the unfailingly hot Beijing afternoon. Why she’s mad at me while we get on a bus or hail a pedicab or walk, depending on the time and how unbearable the smoggy heat is and how much food we’re carrying. Why she’s mad at me even as we walk through the hospital doors.

Her shortness is a daily occurrence, and it is no different today as we clamber out of the pedicab and my mom hands the driver some crumpled bills. The entrance of the hospital is empty, probably the only place devoid of other people in this city crammed to the corners with humans. The A/C is a relief. The tiles of the lobby floors look clean and shiny.

Beijing is trying to look clean in a way it wasn’t before. They have people scrubbing the streets now, vested figures who are days away from being considered elderly. They’ve added a high-speed shuttle station down the road. They’ve replaced the appliance store across the street from the apartment with a giant Wàndá mall. It has five floors of boutiques. There is a sixth floor with a movie theater and restaurants; we keep going there to eat and to pretend, every time a relative shuttles over to see us. There is a supermarket in the basement that lǎo lǎo refuses to go to because it is too expensive and everyone pays for things with their phones. So instead, she and I keep waking up at five in the morning (me because of the jet lag) and we walk across bā lǐ qiáo to the market on the other side of the river, where she tries to barter with the vendors. She is too soft to do it properly. and yífù, though, they now get all of their groceries from the Wàndá supermarket. They keep bringing me with them. They keep trying to buy me snacks and red bean shaved ice from the food court in the basement. Whenever Mom comes with us, she keeps refusing to let them get me anything, refusing to the point where she and her sister almost get into a screaming match over me in the middle of the crowded food court. They cannot talk to each other at the moment without yelling at each other. I think maybe that is why my mom is mad at me. I think everyone is trying to prove something to each other, but I have no idea what.

Despite the sidewalk-sweepers, despite the shiny new mall and the WeChat payment system and the plazas of topiaries, Beijing is not clean. You can tell from your fingernails, because somehow, there will always be dirt under them by the end of the day. The clean sidewalks do not get rid of the people. This is what I am thinking about right now, staring down at my hands as I sit in lǎo yé’s room. The man on the other side of the curtain that splits the room is babbling incoherently. The middle-aged guy with the leathery skin who watches both of them is sitting in the corner, in his slippers, fanning his face. He is saying something about how that man took the last shit of his life last night. He says this while Mom is trying to get lǎo yé to eat the congee. I am trying to close my ears to all of it by inspecting my fingernails as hard as I can.


I have always been a bit of a hoarder. Maybe it’s a generational thing, something inherited like trauma. Except I’m pretty sure my grandma is the only other person in this family who likes to keep things. Everyone else is obsessed with throwing things away.

I like to keep all my school papers, every memento, I don’t delete messages off of my phone. There was a period of time in sixth grade when it got really bad, when I refused to throw away snack wrappers because I felt like I was neglecting them. Now I only save clear plastic packaging and it’s okay because they could come in handy someday.

I collect hurts like I collect birthday cards, gathering all the little scars in my heart together so I can wield them as proof of my pain. When I was younger I kept track of all of my bruises, counted the number of days they lasted, fantasized about threatening my mom with calls to child services. Instead of actually doing it I furiously journaled about my indignation. I am still a little bit obsessed with writing about my silencing, all the things I can’t say. I am still kind of convinced that it’s the only thing preventing all the loudness from spilling over in real life. I know I am still obsessed with my mom.

My grandmother is obsessed with keeping photos. She likes to prop them up so she can stare at them all day, pictures of my brother and I when we were young and let her do things for us without getting annoyed at her for being suffocating. Even then, I’d yell at her when she’d ask me too many times whether I wanted more food, but it was fine because I was a kid and didn’t know better. Now when I do it it’s just mean, and I feel guilty after, but I can never stop doing it. I know better, but I am too self-centered to act better.

I like flipping through old photo albums too, especially my grandma’s, because she has photos of everyone: her siblings, her nieces, her nephews, her daughters, her sons-in-law, her sons-in-law’s families, her grandchildren. I once found some photos she has of my other grandmother’s funeral. It was before I was born, my dad’s face is young and boyish. In all the photos everyone is wailing, bottom lips quivery. There are photos upon photos of the three brothers clutching each other, holding each other up, mouths open in grief. I didn’t understand these images. They were embarrassing, the way they were so naked with vulnerability, with hurting. It was embarrassing to see my parents in this way. It was embarrassing to see everyone crying. It was like witnessing my mom cry in the movie theater. It did not fit the parameters for my mother’s expression of emotion. I’d looked at each photo once, and then had closed the photo album immediately.


Now Mom and lǎo lǎo and the guy with the leathery face leave the room to wash the utensils and talk to the doctor. I am still sitting here, but I am alone with lǎo yé now, and all I can do is stare at him. I try not to look at the tubes digging into his arm. For once in my life, I don’t have anything to say, my mouth is sealed of my own accord.

He pats the empty space next to him on the bed. I get up obediently, sit next to him. I have not been this close to him in the three weeks that we have been here. Still I cannot think of anything to say, so I just keep staring at him.

Actually I can think of things to say, am thinking of a lot of things I want to say, I just cannot ever say them out loud.

I know how to say them, too, it’s just wǒ ài nǐ over and over, but how do you even say that after a lifetime of not ever saying things like that out loud? How do you say that to someone who has lived an entire lifetime of never hearing things like that out loud? The closest we’ve ever gotten is saying wǒ xiǎng nǐ, but that is something you say over the phone to let someone know you still think about them even from a continent away. You can’t tell someone you miss them if you’re sitting right next to them. Or there is also wǒ huì xiǎng nǐ, but I don’t even dream of saying those words out loud, because they invite the possibility of an after, of a leaving, of death. In literal terms, wǒ huì xiǎng nǐ is not just “I think of you,” it is “I will think of you.” I refuse to acknowledge any chance of future missing. I refuse to think about how much I will miss him. In this moment there is only room for the here and now, for the daily routine of making our way here through the yellow heat. We are letting all of the Beijing summer fill this space between us. There is no place for boarding the plane tomorrow, no leaving. So the only option is the first one, but again, you don’t say things like “I love you” out loud.

The silence is so choking, my inability to speak so debilitating, it feels like I’m the one with a missing lung.


Hēi! The girl is sitting there now,” says the man with the leathery face. The three of them have reentered the room: him, my mother, my grandma.

My mom glances at us, starts collecting our things, snaps the lid onto the half empty dish of congee on the bedside table. “, we are leaving now,” she tells her father.

I immediately burst into tears. I throw my arms around him, trying to hug him without crushing anything, without ruining the tubes, without hurting his fragile frame. He reaches up to pat me in the back. I feel ridiculous because I can’t say anything, can’t say I love you, I miss you, I’m sorry, I will miss you. The only thing I can do is sob “lǎo yé” over and over again and make my mother ashamed with my tears.

“The girl is sad,” says the guy with the leathery face.

In Mandarin, “sad” is shāng xīn, which in literal terms means “hurt heart.”

My grandfather is patting my back, says something about making sure to listen to my parents and do well in my studies. It is a passed down thing, not being able to say out loud the things we mean. It is in our DNA. We are both not talking about the part where this is goodbye for real. He is sounding choked up but I can’t tell if it’s because he’s starting to cry or if it’s because of his lung and his difficulty breathing. I keep telling myself to commit the feel of his hand and his bony fingers to memory. Even when I was little, everyone used to say my hands and flat feet were exactly like his. I try to memorize the lines of his face. My tears are making everything blurry. Already I feel like I’m forgetting.

Xíng le,” says my mom. Enough. “You’re going to hurt him.”

She pulls me up by the arm, my grandma hands me a tissue, tells me to wipe my face. My mom is too angry to say anything to me or look at me. I do not say “goodbye” or “I’ll miss you” or any of it. I am just shepherded out the door, sobbing, my mom emotionless beside me.

She is mad at me because I’ve embarrassed her with my crying. She is mad at me because she is very bad at hiding her emotions.

When my mom is mad, I’ve learned there are a few ways to respond. The first is to cry, which is the quickest way to vindicate her, because she wants to see a reaction. Then she can tell me to stop crying and it satisfies her to do so. The other response is to be completely calm and emotionless, to answer everything she says with utter reasonability. This infuriates her, because she doesn’t want her words to be proven wrong or right, she just wants to be mad. Sometimes when she’s yelling she starts crying like I’m the one hurting her. This has never made sense to me because she could simply stop yelling at me and the whole situation could be over with. But like I said, my mom is very bad at hiding her emotions.

Sometimes I think I am becoming my mother and that terrifies me, because if I ever have kids, I would never want to become the kind of mother that my mom was to me. It terrifies me because I have a theory that if I don’t become my mother, then my kid will never become like me, and having a kid like me is what terrifies me the most. So many things are inherited, passed down in our DNA.


Now we are back in the sunlight; it is too bright and natural compared to the fluorescence inside. I have to shield my eyes as we walk. It is still hot and my shirt sticks immediately to my back from the instant slick of sweat that coats my skin. But it is getting close to the evening hours now, and the light seems to emit something that feels like dusk.

“Why are you crying?” my mom asks me. “You’re acting like you’re the one who’s sick.”

God, we are so repressed, even when someone is dying.

April Li is a first-year Journalism and English student from Connecticut. She is passionate about diverse books, em dashes, and Costco.