Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Caitlin Donovan
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Hold Your Tongue
I don’t know much about who my parents are.
I know my mom grew up in a small village in China, with wolves in her backyard and sharing peanuts and small bowls of rice in her house of twelve, a caretaker through obligation, not will. I know her father was sent to labor camp for his politics, and her mother travelled frequently to find work. I know my dad was better off, but always the outcast in his family, overshadowed by a successful brother and dutiful sister. I flip through our old photo albums, and I see them flying a kite on Far Rockaway, on the George Washington Bridge, in Central Park, and I wonder who is behind the camera. They smile vacantly, in a country they feel that they will never belong in, one where they will always be searching for the future that some god promised them.
When they first came to America, I imagine they felt a profound loneliness— no one waiting here for them, no one expecting them back home. My mom worked in 10 hours, 6 days a week, in a fish store on the Upper West Side, my dad worked as a labtech, getting paid maybe 8 dollars an hour, every day looking for their better life, building a future, no time to reckon with what they left in the dirt roads of their hometown, trauma and loss and fear buried under their first apartment on Riverside.
Fear grows into anger, or maybe it hides under it. One of my earliest memories is the splintering of a wooden chair, the recoil pushed me to hide in the must of the walk-in, I waited until he had left for the day. My mom goes back to the timer over the kitchen stove, stepping over the dents in the hardwood, the rattling of boiling eggs fills my thoughts, drips of condensation on the lid of the pot fall like a torrent of rain in the stillness of the room. When he comes back the next morning, we fall into a shell of routine, I am always waiting for the next tic with bated breath—a perpetuation of a cycle, explosions and silence.
My mom seldom brings it up, I think I have only heard her speak of him once. We are walking in the neighborhood park after dusk, the buzz of the mosquitoes flits in and out and the bell of the piragua cart fades into the greenery, marbled with purple in the dark. “He still loves you.” Why won’t he say so, then?
“He’s very stressed. He’s managing the best he can.” She strokes the back of my head, but I flinch away.I don’t really know how to respond, the right words atrophied from disuse, buried under years of practiced quietude. To speak now would be to upheave roots that reach far beyond my sixteen years, maybe stemming from the plane that landed in JFK International in 1991, maybe from an overwhelming desire, born 50 some years ago, to please in a country shattered through revolution, maybe from the very beginning, when my ancestors settled in the humidity of Southern China, shaping bowls with sediment and walking on unpaved roads, I don’t know. We walk home side by side, watching teething children waddle past us, trailed by rustling foil balloons and flushed parents, their shouts filling the immeasurable distance between us.
When my grandma was diagnosed, I didn’t ask about appointments or prognosis or treatment. I read articles on the NIH website about five year survival rates and developing drugs, but I never asked how she was doing. Language barrier was an excuse. She must be tired was another. I did my “homework” from 7 to midnight every day for weeks, I wondered if I should visit the hospital but I never reached for my jacket. We share a bunk bed— for a string of nights, I listen to her uneven breathing, staring at the ceiling, grainy in the dim light leaking from the window, until my alarm buzzes. What am I so afraid to say?
A week after her surgery passes, my mom tells me the biopsy is clean.“Well, that’s good then.” I turn back away.
“Why don’t you care?” Her voice raises slightly. I do care, I do care, I do. I shrug my shoulders, roll my eyes back before tears threaten to spill. She slams the door as she leaves, a sheet of paper falls from the bookshelf in the wake of her departure, drifting gently amidst a small violence. The guilt that has been pooling in my stomach for weeks embeds itself in a place I can’t figure out how to reach, I scrub my hands until they turn raw, I watch the suds go down the drain with a soft glug.
A plastic bag left on the floor triggers a fight, beginning with slammed doors and ending with the beep of the rice cooker. I sit at the dinner table, watching as my mom places the food on the table, the porcelain gently scraping the strained table cloth. Today, the grease on the string beans glistens, the turmeric on the tofu seems unnaturally bright, I push the last couple grains of rice in my bowl around until they turn mealy. My dad sits to the right of me, my mom across, my brother to the left. I want to wince at the persistent sound of the scrape of metal on glass, but I almost welcome it today, reverberating, threatening the stagnancy of 7 pm.
I only found out my mom was sick through a morning fight. My dad stood at one end of the kitchen, while my mom sat at the opposite end, in a chair meant for children— she looked so small. When my dad finally stopped shouting, he was crying— he hugged me, I felt my body go slack. The button on the sleeve of his brown corduroy pressed into my temple, he says he’s sorry, so sorry, so sorry, he’s always been sorry. My mom kneels next to me, grabs my face, begs me to say something. My voice sticks to the inside of my chest like molten honey, and I am being shaken back and forth, I wish I could say something, tell them it’s alright, it’s okay, we’re okay.
Silence settles in our kitchen on a Wednesday morning, I am staring at the three kitchen towels hanging from the oven handle: cerulean blue, white with a pink stripe, and red-and-white checkered. The air seems to waver, maybe from the stove, maybe I’m imagining it.
When I dream of my future, I invite my highschool friends over and we pretend we know how to use something besides the microwave, I am dancing with my girlfriend in the living room to Sam Cooke, we have ugly woven placemats and scratchy knit rugs and oddly shaped ceramics— I want to have a dinner table for the two of us, where we sit and talk and we hear car alarms from 3 blocks away and the occasional rattle of the fridge, I want it so silence doesn’t hang so heavy, I want it so that anger doesn’t have to seep slowly and fester—
When I dream of my future, there is a dining room, with a circular table and wooden cabinets. The white paint on the chair legs peels and droops, and the hum of the ceiling fan fades into white noise under currents of thoughts, rising and falling, I wonder if I forgot the right words or if I never really learned them. The better life clanks and whirrs with the heater under profuse stillness, I wonder if we will ever learn, if the pain of a land forgotten will only cascade down and multiply until we suffocate, not in the murky waters of the Yangtze River, but in the throes of Washington Heights, generations and generations of what is there to say?