Portrait of Our White Mother Sitting at a Chinese Men’s Table


First Person

Image courtesy Jennifer Tseng, photographer unknown.

February 1982

It’s night. The curtains are closed, which gives the room a claustrophobic look. The men are all wearing brown or black, with white. Our mother is wearing blue, which both complements the oranges on the table and is the color that, as a child, I thought of as a white person’s color. When asked what their favorite color was, white kids almost always said “blue.” It’s our mother’s favorite color, too. Mine is red, the Chinese color of happiness. The men match the room, its fixtures and decor. Our mother and the oranges stand out as things that have come in from the outside; things that, like imports or immigrants, have come from elsewhere. Though the oranges agree with the orange chairs, one of the men’s shirt collars, the painting on the wall, our mother is the only blue thing.

This photograph, taken when I was thirteen, always provokes mixed feelings in me. I spent much of my childhood observing the ways in which our Chinese father didn’t belong in the mostly white, English-speaking town where we lived. Chinese parties (sponsored by the small Chinese association of which he was president) were both the one place where our father could speak his native language and a place where our mother was usually miserable. She was shy. She dreaded these parties. They meant stepping out of her comfort zone.

Our father stepped out of his comfort zone every day. He moved through the streets of our California town because he had to in order to survive. Relatively speaking, our mother had the luxury of choosing when (or whether) to step outside her comfort zone and into an all-Chinese situation. But our home—most people’s primary comfort zone—was a place where she felt distinctly uncomfortable. Under our father’s strict rule, she lived on tenterhooks. So it’s complicated.

She has her hand on a glass. When it came to drinking, our parents were virtuous. For our father this virtue had as much to do with saving money as it did with maintaining sobriety. On special occasions, they shared a beer. Our mother had always been a lover of wine and after their marriage ended, she became someone who had a glass of wine or a beer with dinner. In the photo, when I see her hand touching the glass, I wonder if she’s glad to have a little something to soften the blows of the evening. It would be her chance to have a glass of wine or maybe an entire beer to herself.

Not one of the men is looking at her. Their attention is focused elsewhere. The seat next to her is empty, the living thing nearest her, a plant. Plants are one of our mother’s greatest loves. She dreamed of majoring in ornamental horticulture but our father persuaded her to major in microbiology. He’s the one who sent her to college, so I’m not sure she had a choice.

Having the parents I did made me acutely aware of intersectionality at an early age. I searched in countless books for a representation of the complex power dynamics between them, and I didn’t find one until I encountered Marguerite Duras’s The Lover.

The Chinese restaurant scene in The Lover is one of many that leap out at me. Like the image of our mother at a Chinese party, the scene is many scenes rolled into one, an event that happens over and over again. Duras’s Chinese lover is seated at the table with her white family who are all “strikingly alike, especially in the face.” No one looks at him or speaks to him. The only time they turn their heads in his direction is the moment he settles the bill.

He pays. He counts out the money. Puts it in the saucer. Everyone watches. The first time, I remember, he lays out seventy-seven piastres. My mother nearly shrieks with laughter. We get up to leave. No one says thank you. No one ever says thank you for the excellent dinner, or hallo, or goodbye, or how are you, no one ever says anything to anyone.

The lover pays for Duras’s brothers to “gorge themselves,” he pays to be insulted. He’s filthy rich. It is his money that allows their relationship to flourish, to happen in the first place. If he’d been poor, his Chinese-ness would have disqualified him. He never would have been there in his black car at the ferry. He wouldn’t have known French, couldn’t have spoken to her. Without his money, her family wouldn’t have tolerated him. “This is because he’s Chinese, because he’s not a white man.” Despite their hatred of his Chinese-ness, given their precarious financial situation, his money makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dismiss him.

In the photograph, our mother is the reverse of Duras’s lover. She possesses whiteness but no money. Another strike against her: she is a woman. Our father was particularly scornful of “American women,” by which he meant white women. He complained they were fat, lazy, sloppy, loud—never mentioning in the same breath that he had married an American woman who was slim, hard-working, clean, and quiet.

My sister and I speculate on the identity of the photographer. Whose eyes are trained on our mother, if not the eyes of the men at the table? Who has elicited this faint smile? Such a smile strikes us as significant in the context of her usual misery at a Chinese party. Is it a genuine smile or is it a smile that obscures her true feelings?

Mei wonders if our father took the picture, if the faint smile is for him, the empty seat next to her, his. This possibility moves me, though it is difficult to imagine our mother producing even a faint smile for him. In part because of this, in part because of the alien-looking date stamped on the back of the photograph, I imagine it is someone other than our father. The likelihood that she smiled for a stranger out of politeness seems, to me, far greater.

When a woman is unhappy in a relationship, sometimes the only recourse she has is the power to withhold a smile. The powerless often rely on absence or lack as forms of passive violence or action. The refusal to smile is an act of passive resistance.

And yet our father might have been the photographer. This leaves room for the possibility that, in the moment of the shutter opening and closing, a remnant of love still existed between them, which is something the part of me that is their child wants to believe. No child wants to believe they were born of hate. To be born of love is to be born with the capacity to love. It is the only inheritance that matters.

Regardless of who’s looking at our mother, regardless of whom our mother’s smile is for, the image marks her as foreign. The photograph is evidence that once, she stepped out of her world and into our father’s.

Not, as in our father’s case, because she had to—growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she was surrounded by people like herself: white (and black), working class, native speakers of English. Our father wasn’t rich. Something more than necessity compelled her. She could have married the gas station attendant she spoke of so fondly (someone she no longer remembers).

My sister and I indulge in the dream of the gas station man, too, the dream of a white father for both of us, a white husband for her. Someone poor but loving, a sweet talker, someone the opposite of our father. As children we rarely paused to consider that if this white dream man had been our father, we would have ceased to exist.

It was our parents’ idiosyncratic union—riddled with power differentials, rife with cultural, temperamental, and linguistic misunderstandings, set in a world in which, only one year prior, such a marriage would have been illegal—that made us. We were born of their difficult and complicated love and we will never be otherwise.

The men’s table at a Chinese party is the equivalent of the captain’s table on a cruise ship. When I think of it this way I can easily imagine our father taking the picture. He had a sense of humor and would certainly have found our mother’s presence at this table funny and ironic.

As I learned in The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje, who is himself the result of an Asian-European union (Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil), on a ship the cat’s table is the table farthest away from the captain’s table. At home, the four of us sat around the dinner table. We ate at a picnic table, which we brought outside when the weather was warm. It gave the room a rustic, temporary look. Like a table belonging to a family of nomads, it was constantly moved back and forth between the family room and the backyard patio. If the house was a ship, the table, when our father was present, was the captain’s table. In his absence, it became a cat’s table. Cats were another thing about America that he hated.

Our father faced the television; it held his attention throughout every meal. My sister and I sat with our backs to it. On occasion we swiveled around to look at it, but the program was always World News, which we found boring. Instead, we watched our father gorge himself on the Chinese food our mother had cooked for him. This was far more compelling, something we couldn’t watch anywhere but at our own dinner table, not even on TV.

Our mother sat facing a row of windows to the backyard. The window sills were lined with her plants—begonias, violets, succulents—which she watered every morning while we slept. If my sister and I weren’t sitting across from her she would have had a clear view of World News. As it was, she spent most of her time looking out the windows, as if waiting for it to end—the newscast, the dinner, the evening, her life. Although he gorged himself right next to her, she didn’t look at our father or speak to him.

As far back as I can remember, she hated him. Maybe that’s why this picture moves me so much. I can’t look at it and believe she never loved him. A shy, soft-spoken white girl from the South Side of Chicago, born in 1947, doesn’t just stumble into a photo like this. The distance between the two places is not unlike the distance between the U.S. and China, a sea she crossed without knowing how long it would take, or how arduous the journey.


 Jennifer Tseng is an award-winning poet and fiction writer who believes in the power of Kundiman Forever. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard.