This Is the Only Country My Mother Calls Her Own

This Is the Only Country My Mother Calls Her Own

Originally Published in The New York Times

Opinion - Katherine J. Chen - September 1, 2020

My mother moved to America in 1989. This summer, amid a pandemic and an uprising, she voted for the first time.

Ms. Chen is the author of the novel “Mary B.”

Credit...Ran Zheng

For my mother, it began in the department store where she works, processing clothes freshly removed from warehouse boxes and hanging them on racks to be sold on the floor. It was March, and one of the store managers and a few co-workers were chatting near her. The subject: the latest coronavirus news. When my mother, an immigrant from China, joined in with what she had heard that morning, the manager looked her in the eye and coldly responded, “Well, you would know better than any of us.”

As the pandemic worsened, so did my mother’s situation at work. Whenever she entered a room, people would find excuses to leave, scattering like ants disturbed at a picnic. Co-workers she believed she was on good terms with threw boxes against the floor and walls when she passed, making her jump. She eventually lost count of the occasions when she greeted someone, while maintaining social distance and speaking through a mask, only to have that person turn without a word and walk away.

Each day, in the early afternoon, I watched my mother return home with new stories to tell. Even when she was silent, her frustration and anger were evident to me, her only child. She is a strong woman, a city girl from Shanghai, who in 1989 left behind her squalid one-room apartment in China to escape a futureless life under the Communist Party and an abusive older brother who was making her life and her parents’ lives a misery.

Poverty cultivated in her a resilience and a willingness to get her hands dirty, to work hard. Yet nothing prepared her for the fallout from this pandemic.

She took in what became for her the “new normal” of brazen and unabashed hostility in the era of Covid-19, just as she took in the hate-fueled rhetoric of the president and his coterie of red-tied advisers on the news. The killing of George Floyd sent shock waves through both of us, even though we aren’t Black. When she saw George Floyd’s daughter on the news, she cried.

It is so easy for a person who has immigrated to this country, who is a person of color, a woman, who is not perfectly fluent in the English language and who possesses neither the skill set nor the education to “elevate” herself in the workplace, to feel voiceless, even in the land where she sought sanctuary. It takes sheer determination and iron-cased willpower to get through each day, to survive with one’s dignity and pride intact, even as so many hands, with their tools of hate, seek to chip away and erode that dignity and pride.

So, this June, my mother did something for the first time in her life. She voted.

I remember when the envelope for New Jersey’s vote-by-mail primary election arrived and how she opened it carefully, almost with a child’s repressed curiosity, at the kitchen counter. A pamphlet contained instructions in large print to complete the form and select a candidate, then to place that form in a separate envelope. She did this slowly, as if she were performing a delicate ritual or assembling, like a clockmaker, intricate parts in a fine instrument.

She did not tell me that she was planning to vote, but she saved the opening of the envelope and the completion of the form for the most peaceful moment of her day: after dinner, when all the dishes were washed and the laundry was folded and put away.

She only called out to me at one point to ask, “What does the word ‘municipality’ mean?” And when I stumbled for the Chinese translation, she said, “Never mind,” and got an old, beaten-up English-Chinese dictionary from one of her drawers to look up the word instead.

She completed the process of voting almost as quietly as she began it. Once the second envelope was sealed, she changed out of her nightgown into a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. Then, pulling on a face mask, she went down to the lobby of the apartment building to drop off her ballot in the mail slot. In the same silence, she returned.

Yet I could feel the solemnity of this moment, the weight in the air, the slight shift that is like the tingle of electricity when a single voice is raised, when all of those precious, precious words in our English lexicon that are capitalized — Truth, Hope, Freedom — seem to stir, for a moment, and awake from their slumber.

My mother has told me this is the only country she recognizes and calls her own, even as, in recent months, otherwise straightforward trips to the grocery store and local mall have become exercises in both patience and resilience. This is her country, a place she has lived in and embraced as her home for over 30 years. She lives a simple life; she has no ambitions, no greater aspirations other than to continue to keep a roof over her head and hold down a job.

This is what my mother has taught me, by her example: The insults, the heartache, the injustice and the deep, deep roots of the systemic racism ingrained in this country neither dispel nor negate the daily, even hourly, opportunity for change that is as pervasive and a part of this country’s complicated patchwork as its hate- and blood-filled history. Hard as it may be, we must try not to forget this.

My mother hasn’t forgotten, and for the first time in her life, she no longer relegated herself to the crowd of the voiceless in this nation. She voted, and come November, she will vote again.


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