I stared at the mirror and saw nothing but a flare of brown. I closed my eyes for the dizziness to pass, reopened them, and still found myself looking at a young girl with a deep blush on her face, her legs wrapped in a thick mountain of wool.
This is me with my Mao Ku at the age of ten. It was, according to my mother, given to me on the date of my birth as a gift from my grandmother. It was an ancient family tradition, but my limited knowledge of both my grandmother and my origins prevented me from understanding its importance. My grandmother was a Manchurian and was, to me back then, a faded figure from Qing Dynasty, quiet, tolerating and distant. As a child I put all these fragments of information together and made up my own explanation: I was born into a family of Kung-Fu masters and I had to wear Mao Ku under my pants as a symbol of my secret identity.
My hatred towards Mao Ku started with a rope skipping competition in the first grade. I remembered that the whistle blew and the rope in my hands started to turn. My vision blurred into a mixture of bouncing colors. From a distant place on the playground someone burst into laughter, igniting the whole crowd. Suddenly there were sounds of laughing and whispering and shouting, all of which seemed flung in my direction. I stopped, confused, and looked around. I saw girls with hands capped over their mouths that couldn’t conceal their giggles and boys with widened eyes and funny faces. I lowered my gaze and was met by a squatting pair of pants and a brown that I knew so well. Thus, my Mao Ku was introduced to the public.
After the accident, my Mao Ku became that twin sister who was a projection of all my weaknesses and imperfections, who followed me from birth to now laughing at my fantasy of being a Kung-Fu master, who was tied to me by an invisible yet unbreakable bond.
As a small child, I made every attempt to break away from that bond. I tried to ignore it, convincing myself that it was invisible, but it kept stealing into my consciousness. I abandoned it to the darkest corner of the attic, only to find it ironed and neatly folded on my bed stand when I woke up the next morning. When changing clothes before dance class, I snuck into the bathroom to take it off and pretend to be wearing skinny jeans with rips and nothing underneath, like other girls did. At some point, I made a declaration to my grandmother that I hated it, that it was old-fashioned and smelled like the damp earth after rain. She smiled, as usual, and said only four words: “It is good tradition.”
I was frustrated. Now, my Mao Ku not only reflected my own weakness, but also that of my family, my culture. It mingled with the image of my grandmother tottering with her bound feet, the heavy expectations from my parents, the sweeping dark soil of the northeastern land, the dialect, and the stubborn obsession with pickles.
My last resort was to hide it in a secret place and pretend to have lost it. The chosen hiding place was an apricot tree in a small grove near my home, whose branches, plumed with brown fruits, provided a perfect camouflage. Hearing the “sad” news, my grandmother tottered through every corner of the house to search for it, and, after finding nothing, was silent.
I broke away from my Mao Ku. I laughed with my friends. I wore ripped jeans and hot pants. Yet, beyond the surface where happiness bubbled, I felt estranged, as if I was cut off from my roots drifting with the current. In winter, when I stood amidst the snow shivering, I would even miss the sense of warm protection that Mao Ku once endowed. Something was lost along with it, perhaps I thought.
I drifted through five winters happily and uneasily until one cold winter night. It was the night before my brother was born. Everyone left for the hospital, except my grandmother and me. We sat across from each other at the kitchen table, listening to the soft moaning sound of the kettle. I was anxious and kept looking at the clock, at the dark night outside, and at her, but she was focused on something in her hands. It was of a dark olive color with a shape and texture that evoked a strange feeling in me. It was a new pair of Mao Ku.
I couldn’t move. My gaze was locked on her fingers, dancing with the needles in abrupt movements, yet gracefully and with great effort. Then my eyes wandered up. She hunched her back so that she bent deeply over her work. With each pattern finished, she would put it down, tilt towards the right and examine it, with a slight nod or shake of her head, like a serious artist. She was smiling with her tightly pursed lips, her squinted eyes, and her wrinkles. I sat enchanted, watching closely as the threads intertwined into lines and lines into patterns of dragons roaming through the clouds.
Suddenly, I felt a strong desire to be somewhere. I crept out of the room, started to run, and dived deep into the grove, until I arrived at the bottom of the apricot tree. I climbed up and, with trembling hands, reached into the thickest branch. I felt a soft touch that was so familiar, paused for a moment and let my fingers run through the fabric many times. Even by hand I recognized the pattern of a phoenix rising through the ashes. It was my Mao Ku. Sitting in the tree and thus totally secluded from the outside world, I put it on again after all those years. Yet I was not ashamed this time. I rushed back to the house, never having felt so free. Standing before my grandma, I lifted my pants, pointed to my Mao Ku and said, “I found it! ”
I stare at the mirror and see a nineteen-year-old girl with black hair and black eyes and a yellow complexion. The sharp contrast between the colors jumps out at me, blurring all other features, recalling that strange and familiar feeling of awkwardness. My hands automatically tuck at my pants, as if I’m wearing my Mao Ku again. But it is not there.
This is me, a new arrival to the United States. For the past few weeks, I’ve struggled with mixed feelings of fear and hope. I’ve stood slightly frightened when faces with different complexions float towards me, faces with huge grins asking me questions like, “Where are you from?” I’ve hoped to tell them a long story, with movements and colors and light, instead of just the word “China.” I’ve hoped to share with them mysteries and legends. But most of the time, they are not interested. “Oh cool,” they say, and the conversation drifts into other routine questions.
Their response reminds me of the laughter on the playground thirteen years ago. Just like then, so many years ago, I try to ignore my uncomfortable feeling, to hide it away, or to simply endure it with much pain. I try and try with no success. After each attempt, I search helplessly for only a cup of hot water, for chopsticks instead of a knife and fork, for a bow that expresses my gratitude deeply and the feeling of shame comes on a bit stronger.
Now, I close my eyes and see a figure from the past, with a hunched back and knotted fingers, quietly knitting a dark shade of green. I see the delicateness, the hope for a new life woven into it. I see the warmth that was sewn into the fiber. I see the effort, the ancient wisdom stitched into every curve.
I also see a small figure rushing towards home, eager to share her rediscovery, a phoenix in flaming brown rising through the ashes. And then the simple truth comes to me: we are all wearing our culture underneath like Mao Ku, carrying the full weight of traditions, habits, norms and expectations. It is cumbersome sometimes, but it is worth holding because it is the hope, the sweat, and the wisdom of our ancestors that make it heavy.
I open my eyes and whisper to myself, “I found it!”