Cultural Light Years Apart

She was a daughter of a WWII General. I was a daughter of an immigrant playboy. Her father flowed in and out of early childhood years, mine abandoned me completely by high school. Though our worlds as young girls were as different as Earth and Mars, 10,000 cultural light years apart, there were hidden similarities between our intertwined blueprints, passed down through the natural inheritance from one generation over to the next that would shadow and define our relationship for decades ahead.

The year is 1943, the Japanese attack the small urban town of Changjiao in Hunan Province. The massacre lasts for four days, with the Japanese murdering 30,000 civilians and raping thousands of women. My mother’s father is fighting the Japanese under the direct command of Chiang Kai Shek. Her mother gathers the belongings of her four children, three servants, a retired wet nurse and a stubborn, slow moving (due to foot binding) aged aunt, to head to Shanghai.

My mother silently observes the destruction of her birthplace, sounds and sights of violence all around her, the deafening thunder of bombs, the screams and wounds from women, children and men, and the orders in her mother’s native Hunanese dialect, “Hurry.”  My mother, Li Chi Teh, is four years old and she is running for her life.

The year is 1976, my family, which includes my father’s parents, is living in Queens, New York. Our home is a modest three bedroom off Jamaica Avenue. My father is a full time student and my mother a full time bookkeeper at a Sobering up Station in upper Manhattan. My mother and her mother-in-law do not get along; constant accusations, fighting, and betrayal. My mother is the only one working in our household, she supports the entire family only to receive subway tokens as her daily allowance.

Dad's parents
A rare photo in our home in Jamaica Ave (left to right) my older sister, me, my father’s parents, my baby sister and my mom

It is a crisp fall afternoon, my grandmother, awaits by the front door for my mother to come home from work. She’s pacing, waiting to give my father notice. My sister and I are in the living room, not knowing the rising eruption.  As my mother enters the back door, she notices my father burning one of her art scrolls given to her by a close friend. My father is accusing her of stealing money. “What are you doing?” as she frantically tries to open the door, it is locked from the inside. She breaks through a small pane and hooks her hand through to unlock the door. He pins her wrist against the broken glass and presses with hateful force.

Her screams hover over the cobble stoned streets of Jamaica Avenue, there is little time to know what is happening, we have to get out. My Jieh Jieh (older sister) grabs my hand as we run to the far side of our neighbor’s driveway. We cover our ears from the violence and hold back streaming tears. My mother is hurt, her wrist bleeding from the sharp edges of the shattered glass. My father is the culprit, he is seething and justifying his anger while unraveling the cloth from his hands that he used to break through the shards of lingering glass. Crying, crouching, waiting, my sister whispers to me “Hurry”. My Chinese name is An Chi Li, I am four years old and I too am running for my life.

My mother was the only daughter and although favored and nurtured by her almost always absent father, her mother showed very little love, never letting her forget the burdens of being a woman, her only daughter whom she had considered giving away because of it. I too was my father’s favorite and the one to whom my mother handed over to living with during their all too often, marital separations. I was the easiest to handle.

Life or death, all or nothing, abandonment, fear, and anger, those were the underlying rhythms which framed my mother and me, at very early ages.  It affected every decision, every perspective, and every outburst, thereafter, but the differences between my mother goes back to this: We are cultural light years apart. I had the ability to open myself to outside influences, education, forgiveness, and therapies that my mother never had the chance, nor the desire to explore or to face.  I learned to heal, at 78 years old, my mother has yet to tear the bandages off.