Hoarding Secrets

Lisa Chen

“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself… The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know.”

—Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

My mother hoarded secrets. She whispered some to me in the months leading up to her death, but mostly took them with her. Her secrets were her one true possession; she recounted them in her sleep. When I was a child, I laid next to her at night and kept still as her body tossed in a trance. Before bed, she’d rub Tiger Balm on her shoulder blades, pressing in for relief. Camphor and menthol to end the day and start her restless sleep.

In those days, my mother could neither let her secrets go nor bury them deep enough. They curled around her shoulder blades, balled into neat bundles, keeping her from standing up straight.

No one ever asked a 5’3” Taiwanese woman her thoughts, let alone her secrets, so Ma simply let them curve her into a new shape.

This is where I get my poor posture.

I tried to ask her for some secrets. Especially after the stage four diagnosis. By the time she went to a doctor, the cancer had already spread into her bones and seeped into her lungs and chest.

She was never a forthcoming person. Sometimes she met my questions with silence. But decent sushi and cheap sake got her to speak a little faster, and certainly with less restraint. As if she wanted the cadence of her speech to carry her off her feet to the other side of release.

Ma, what was your first job?
9 years old. I weaved baskets and furniture at a neighborhood shop with your Amá, 阿媽.

My grandmother slapped my mother’s knuckles if she fiddled too much, so as not to waste any time. The shop owner gave her candy in the afternoon lull when Amá wasn’t looking. Dried sour plum that stuck to your teeth and made you thirsty. My mother earned candy; my Amá earned an extra hand at work.

Why did you leave Taiwan?
A man.
I was young, probably your age. 30.
He was much older.
I thought I was in love.

Sips sake.
I was pregnant.
My coworker said he had a wife back home.

Leans back.
I could not show my face at work again.

My mother spent her twenties as a hostess in nightclubs in Taipei. She convinced her younger sister to join her and leave their sleepy town for the sounds of the big city.

If the nightclub cut hours, which they almost always did, my mother and her sister made a living as tour guides for Japanese tourists. Sisters who sang karaoke on the charter bus for middle-aged Japanese businessmen. Men who smoked cigars and slicked their hair back with greasy oil. The sisters recited simple Japanese phrases and learned to say, arigato gozaimasu, with a deep bow after getting tipped. The men cackled at the concession.

Her pregnancy never came to full-term. A friend of a friend knew what to do, so she did it, is all she ever said.

Continue with more questions, before the sake wears off.

Do you remember when you were taken away to the hospital?
Yes, do you?
But you were just a kid.
I still remember.
I was just sad, I’m not sad anymore. Are you sad, Lisa?

Except she never really uses the word sad. She uses other words around it, because in my elementary-level Mandarin, there is no “sad” between us. It is only: not happy, tired, or not comfortable. But deep, deep sadness, it’s not a commonly used word between us.

She sucks her teeth.
No more questions, she says.

I am 11 years old.

There are many rules here. Turn on and off the light switch before entering the bathroom. Count to three before entering. Knocking is not enough because one of the girls, Allison, is deaf. She’ll holler, “Someone’s in here.” Otherwise, you can open the door. There are no locks here.

You must sign in and out from the clothes bank if you want to wear different clothes than the ones you arrived in. This trading system lets all the girls have a chance to wear the new clothes from donations. I like the maroon-striped top with a scoop neck and a thin white bow on the chest pocket. What goes in such a small pocket? An older girl, Jasmine, is wearing it. She doesn’t notice me noticing her. She is asking the counselor for something I do not yet know to ask for. I’m eventually told four other girls are waiting for this top. I put my name down just in case I’m still here.

“Do you have your period?” the counselor asks.
No, not yet.
“Well, if you do, let one of us know, and you’ll get one pad at a time. We’re running low.”
I nod.
I don’t want to get my period for the first time in a bathroom where I have to turn the lights on and off before entering.

I’m shown my room. Two twin beds pushed against the cream brick walls. A yellow-stained towel and grey blanket are folded at the foot of the bed. The fluorescent lights hurt my eyes.

“Your roommate just left,” the counselor says, “but a new girl will come soon. They always do.”

There are no doors here. Later that night, I hear a mix of giggles and other girls crying. What kind of girl giggles in an emergency youth shelter?

The kind of girl I want to be.

I have trouble sleeping here. I wonder how my mother is doing. I told the counselor she tried to swallow her sorrow in sedatives, so I called 9-1-1. They had no next of kin to release me to. I wonder if my mother is sleeping or if she has rubbed her shoulder blades raw by now? I wonder how long I’m here for, if I will learn to laugh as loudly as some of these girls do.

I have dreams about eating my fallen teeth. They are rotten and crunchy. I choke on the sharp edges, but somehow still chew my way through more teeth. I cannot tell you if these are my teeth. Correction: I do not want to know if these are not my teeth. But this dream keeps haunting me. It finds a home in the back of my molars. My palms sweat and I’m forced to chew the lining of my cheeks, until I taste metal. Taste the blood that comes with rotten teeth.

I tell my mother, I have dreams about eating my fallen teeth. She doesn’t meet my eyes, and only mumbles back to me, “Me too, my dear, me too.”

Except she never calls me my dear.

I am 7 years old.

What do you call this flower in English?
I don’t know.
My mother laughs her incredulous laugh.
What do they teach you in school then?
They teach me other words. But mostly numbers.

They should teach you the names of flowers.

I laugh.
I will not learn the names of flowers, Ma.

Well, you should.

My mother chose Lily as her American name. She immigrated to the U.S. on a tourist visa. A seven-day bus tour of O’ahu. From one island to another. She had no intention of returning to Taiwan.

She booked a flight from Honolulu to San Diego because a friend of a friend had a job for her. Why is it always a friend of a friend? My mother was a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant, the Golden Daisy. It stood hidden in a strip mall that has since been torn down. A red awning to represent good fortune. They served complimentary egg drop soup with every meal.

She met my father at this restaurant. He was a waiter. I once found his name tag in my mother’s red plastic sewing kit. Black embossed text on a white rectangle—BEN. I don’t know why he chose Ben for his American name, but at some point, he was a man who wore a name tag to work.

Two undocumented Taiwanese immigrants find love over food that is not theirs.

When the restaurant was slow, they sold clocks in flea markets. Learned ‘two for ten dollars’ and ‘thank you’ in Spanish and English. Carried cash from their tips in white envelopes for exact change. Every second and fourth Sunday, my parents drove to Los Angeles for a larger flea market. A friend of a friend had an extra table for them to sell at.

The drive took over five hours. In the late 1980s, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) made surprise inspection checkpoints along major freeways in Southern California to police undocumented migrants. Yellow traffic signs of a family holding hands fleeing across the freeway with the word—CAUTION—peppered Interstate 5. My parents learned from others who were not so lucky. They took local streets to Los Angeles and listened closely for tips about checkpoints. Three a.m. departures to make sure they were not seduced by the convenience of a freeway.

I am 18 months old.

Daddy dies of a heart attack. Brown alcohol made his heart rupture at the age of 36, leaving my mother alone with her secrets.

“Help me, Ma,” she says.

My grandmother picked me up at the Taoyuan Airport near Taipei. Unaccompanied minor on EVA Air flight 381. Families were able to wait in the terminal then. Amá heard my wailing as soon as the gate opened.

I wonder what story the airline attendants told themselves about me. If the passengers stirred in their sleep from my cries. What my mother dreamt of in the time away from me, if she found a resting place for her grief or if she stuffed it in for keeps.

I spent two years in Taiwan.
Learned the smells of Amá’s kitchen.
Took my first steps with Akong.
Said Amá instead of Ma.

In total, Ma worked in restaurants for 44 years. Each day she lifted trays and stacked dishes, wiped tables and bar tops clean. She worked the lunch, dinner, and late night happy hour shifts. Sometimes she did a split shift; naps at 2 p.m. before staff meals. She learned to stay quiet when a customer yelled for her manager and she learned to laugh it off when a flirty customer asked for her.

Over time, my mother tried to let go of her secrets. She liked to take walks in the neighborhood, clip flowers to place in old jars for display. She liked to cook simple meals, make 番茄炒蛋 or tomato egg stir-fry, never on a restaurant’s menu but always a home cook’s staple. Slice garlic and green onions into neat piles and stir-fry seasoned eggs and tomatoes over rice. She liked to cover her mouth when she laughed and make for loud cackles. My mother tried to bury her secrets, until it was time for new ones.

Ma kept her stage four breast cancer diagnosis from me for more than eight months. In her slow decline, she didn’t tell me when she was in pain or if she couldn’t eat that day. Whether she slept the night before or felt her steps begin to slow. She didn’t tell me what side effects the medication gave or when she stopped taking them altogether. She didn’t want to tell me that the medical shower seat felt clunky, so she sat flat in the bath tub for fear of falling. She was hesitant to say that her fingers stopped curling, so gripping chopsticks became a pain and spoons were the convenient way.

We lived together a few times, but in the end, she wanted her privacy. I try to tell myself that my mother just wanted some time alone, some time alone with her secrets.

The last time we lived together, we’d take walks in the Arboretum when she could still take walks. Clip flowers I didn’t know the names of on our way home. Do it all over again the next day.

I’ve tried to learn to let go of the secrets I don’t know. The ones I didn’t get to ask her about, the ones she never intended to reveal, and the ones she always wanted to tell but didn’t.

I wish I told her some of my secrets. Ones I don’t even think are secrets anymore.
The times I thought I was in love.
When I lost myself in men and forgot the women who raised me.
And when I, too, sought advice from a friend and took care of a pregnancy.

Three days before my mother passed, I whispered to her, “We did the best we could, Ma.” She was heavily sedated and immoble but gave a visible nod.

This was our last exchange.

Lisa Chen is a Taiwanese American writer based on Duwamish Territory/Seattle, Washington. By day she works on environmental justice policies and by night (and very early morning), she writes on themes of generational grief, inherited loneliness, and food as living memories. She is a contributing editor at The Seventh Wave.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.

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