BY MELISSA LI
My mother always told me that everyone shunned ill-mannered women. No good man wanted to marry a woman who neglected to be soft-spoken and polite, for a proper woman should know how to care for her husband and her family. But being a bratty stubborn tomboy, I was never soft-spoken, and frankly, I couldn’t have cared less for a good man to marry me.
My mother’s mother told her the same thing and it landed her with a terrible husband, my father, who left us for Hong Kong in 1991 in pursuit of a better life for himself. I could never figure out why my mother insisted on handing down the same advice to me when it obviously didn’t work out for her. Perhaps because of this advice, she was stuck raising us on her own.
We lived in a white pre-manufactured house on the fringes of Boston in the little suburb of West Roxbury. I was her only daughter, not to mention the youngest of three. The circumstances of my mother’s childhood drilled discipline and obedience into her at an early age, and it was this discipline and obedience that saved our family in America. She spoke fluent Chinese and English, and bore an aggressiveness that landed her a position as the manager of a well-respected home health service in Boston’s Chinatown. An experienced grade school teacher prior to our immigration, my mother knew how to raise children properly, gentle or stern when appropriate. She never bought herself any new clothes. She never took herself out to dinner. She never reveled in any of the luxuries she gave to my brothers and me. She only worked and managed the household.
Growing up, I remember long car rides. My mother would tell me riddles to solve in the back seat. If I said something funny, she’d throw her head back, squint her eyes, and laugh until she held her stomach. I loved seeing her laugh. I felt it an accomplishment because in my mind my mother’s name had become synonymous with the word stress, and laughter served as an excellent diversion.
My mother confided to me once that I was her favorite child. Like me, she grew up in a matriarchal environment where the women made the important decisions, a rare occurrence for families in China even today. She undoubtedly loved her two sons, one of whom graduated high school as the salutatorian and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree at Harvard University and a master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, but I was still her favorite because I was her baby girl and she wanted the best for me. She expected me to come out on top in every aspect. She wanted me to excel in academics, to acquire a practical and mature career outlook, and to develop a sparking and virtuous personality. Unfortunately, I imagined my mother must have suffered a great disappointment when I turned out instead to be a C student, a filmmaker and folksinger, and worst of all, a lesbian.
One of the longest running battles between my mother and me was over my sexuality. Fighting with my mother was especially exhausting because I never won and neither did she. As a result of our stubborn deadlock, we merely averted the issue, and I was shoved deeper into the closet. She insisted immediate change. I found no reason for it. I believed it was a blessing.
I felt it for the first time in elementary school when I fell in love with Victoria Hargrave, a snobby but gorgeous pink-cheeked blonde. Vying for her friendship required subjection to a mercilessly competitive selection process, and I was proud to be an elite member of her circle of friends. During recess one day, deciding it would be a good idea to play make-believe, Victoria appointed me the prince and herself the princess. My job was to save her from the burning tower by battling the evil monsters, which she appointed everyone else. I was ready to fight bravely and sweep my lady off her feet valiantly.
The game had barely even begun when a sassy little black girl, Miesha, pulled me aside and said, “Do you have a crush on Victoria?”
I told her I didn’t know what crush meant.
She said it’s when you like someone so much you want to kiss them.
So I said yes.
She broke out into a big smile and giggled. Pointing at me with playfulness, she started chanting to the surrounding girls in a sing-song manner, “Melissa has a crush on Victoria! Melissa has a crush on Victoria!” Everyone laughed, including me. Victoria herself was flattered.
We were five.
I didn’t realize who I was until six years later while daydreaming in bed. I don’t remember what I had been thinking but I arrived at the thought that if lesbians liked girls that way, and if I liked girls that way, then by simple logic, I must be a lesbian.
I was ecstatic from the revelation. In fact, I was so overjoyed to have finally found my identity, I picked up the phone, eager to spread the news. Whom should I call? Not my friends, of course. Children wouldn’t be able to grasp the complexities of identity. I called all the adults I knew. They would understand.
A good family friend asked me how I knew for sure. I said I just knew. She chuckled and said I was too young to know. When I grew up, I’d realize how silly this conversation was, she said. My piano teacher almost choked. Fumbling with her words, she brushed me off, telling me not to think about it anymore. It’ll pass.
I told my mother one evening when she was watching the ten o’clock news in bed, a nightly routine. She was snuggled under our sky-blue comforter and her head was propped against a big furry teddy bear. When I explained my revelation, my mother frowned and became silent. The news reporter droned on for what seemed like minutes. Then, my mother spoke softly. She told me I was silly and forbade me to have any more of those thoughts. I never brought it up so honestly ever again.
I became a boy when I turned 13. I wore my brother’s clothes, applied aftershave, and cut my hair. Those butch years caused my mother a tremendous amount of grief. Acquaintances, on friendly encounters, would politely exclaim, “My, Mrs. Li, how tall your son has grown!” to which my mother, lips pursed and brows furrowed, would respond between her teeth, “She’s my daughter,” leaving acquaintances, mother, and daughter, embarrassed.
Towards the end of my sophomore year in high school, my mother accidentally found, in my desk, a pride pin that celebrated me as a person. She refused to speak to me for two days. When she finally did confront me, she compared me first to a drug addict, then a prostitute. I told her I loved her and that was all that mattered. She told me drug addicts and prostitutes told their mothers they loved them too, but what they did was still immoral and unacceptable. Sobbing uncontrollably by the end of the conversation, I promised her I would grow my hair and attempt to be straight.
Through this careful disguise, I safely avoided this discussion for quite some time. Until I started dating. I preferred Caucasian, short-haired, boyish women, those who reeked of lesbianism. My mother, over the years, had honed her senses well enough to pick out all the “unnatural women.” She could smell them a mile away. Whenever I brought my “friends” home for dinner, she would frown and order me to discontinue the friendship.
One day, toward the end of senior year, I received a phone call from the Governor’s Commission for Gay and Lesbian Youth. In appreciation for my socially aware songwriting, organizers wanted me to perform along the route of the annual Boston Youth Pride March. As a proud advocate for gay rights, I would never pass up the chance to play for hundreds of supportive teens. My mother never came to my shows unless upon request so I vaguely told her the City of Boston wanted me to perform for some event. She inquired no further.
On that sunny Saturday afternoon, I arrived early to my designated spot to set up. My friend helped me engineer the sound while I tuned my guitar and tested the microphone. In the distance, I heard someone call my name. To my horror, I saw my mother waving to me at the end of the street. Following her was a trail of family friends.
She told me they came to see my performance.
I nervously glanced at my friend, who averted her gaze towards the ground. The parade hadn’t yet begun. Maybe if I played a song or two, they would go away.
I played them a song. They clapped. They praised. Mrs. Li’s daughter was quite talented, they exclaimed. My mother laughed and modestly said it was just a hobby, nothing special. But a low rumble of police cars abruptly interrupted her sentence. Then came the wave of rainbows. Then the mass of proud young people. Butch women, queeny men, punks, freaks, and those who looked absolutely normal. Queer people of all colors. Straight allies. An ex-girlfriend, upon seeing me, rushed right up, threw her arms around my neck, and planted a noisy kiss on my cheek.
My mother’s friends thought it was all quite entertaining. They cheered the marchers on and laughed at the drag queens. I played on, yelling to hear my voice over all the cheering. My fingers slammed into the guitar. I didn’t know what I was playing, but I didn’t care. The crowd just needed my support. And I just needed theirs.
At the corner of my eye, I saw my mother. I remember thinking that her heart must have caved in. Her mouth was curled in an unconvincing smile. Her arms were folded tightly across her chest. She moved no more than an inch the entire hour we were there. Her eyes glazed over blankly. I knew she had shut down completely.
But I played on. And I sang loudly, louder than ever. Each chord liberated me. I knew she would not speak to me tonight. Or tomorrow. Or the day after. That didn’t matter. I finally felt like my mother’s daughter, a feeling I’d forgotten since I was eleven. There was no hiding and no shame. For here present before me were both my families, and they had only just begun their acquaintance.