By Suzi Wong. Posted November 3, 2021.
I’m the one with the advanced degree in Comparative Literature, but it was my ninety-year-old mother who discovered one of China’s most treasured poems hiding in my off-the-rack, tourist- trade Chinese jacket. My mother’s humble skills as a seamstress trumped my college degrees and educated ignorance. She, Siu Fong Yu Wong, discovered the classical poetry, and I, Number One Daughter, discovered myself to be a classic example of jook sing, the disparaging (albeit sometimes affectionate) label used by Chinese immigrants to describe their American offspring who reject their Chinese roots and adopt Western ways. What did that fake Chinese jacket teach me? Sure, I might have had the smarts to go to a top-notch university and graduate cum laude but, basically, I was just jook sing, a bamboo, looking upright on the outside, but hollow on the inside. And like bamboo rods, notched along intervals so that nothing can flow through them, I carried no water, no history, no tradition, no Chinese poetry.
Ironically, I bought that red jacket in Toronto’s Chinatown. My daughters and I had feasted on the comforting “ancient” flavors of the hybrid Chinese American cuisine invented by generations of immigrants across North America from Sacramento to Chicago to Montreal, their legacy of flavors everywhere wafting out of fluorescent-lit, low-décor restaurants and iconic take-out boxes. Our dinner that night was not Michelin-starred Momofuku served on starched linen, but it sufficed as a delicious “farewell” meal for our cross-border family visit. Sonja’s condo on Baldwin St. was nearby, just the right distance for an idle stroll through Chinatown to digest, digress, and do a little window-shopping. I dashed into a store to pick up imported herbs and salty-sweet dried plums, the kind of treats nowhere to be found in my small college town in the Deep South. I emerged thinking about how to stuff these nostalgic goodies into my carry-on bag for the flight home, when someone, maybe Sonja, who has an eye for style and a good buy, said, “Hey, look at these!”
She was pointing to a rack of flashy jackets outside one of the many bazaar stalls crowding the sidewalk. Of course, the jackets weren’t made of exquisite brocade, but under the artificial lights, they shimmered just enough to pass for silk. I suspected the jackets were designed specifically to telegraph “exotic” for the tourists: raised Chinese collars, ornate frog enclosures instead of buttons, stereotyped “Oriental” patterns woven into rayon. Nonetheless, like flies to honey, we stepped closer to the rack. I riffled through the hangers, bypassing gaudy gold, turquoise, fuchsia, and lime green jackets. My hand paused at a jacket that stood out for being more subdued. It was a deep shade of red, with undertones of black and hints of bronze that added luster without being loud. Instead of clichéd images of butterflies and chrysanthemums, this jacket wove Chinese words into the fabric. The black ideograms were scattered all over the jacket, like lines of elegant calligraphy inked by artists, scholars, and monks. These generically “Asian” markings could even pass for abstract art. I held it up, and as the jacket swung on its flimsy plastic hanger, my daughters nodded approvingly.
“Get it, Mum!” Hilda said in her adopted Canadian idiom. “It’s not that expensive, and you’ll enjoy wearing it.” I promptly took her words to heart for I had never received such positive encouragement from my father on my childhood shopping trips with him. Ever. As the operator of a Chinese laundry raising four kids, he clothed and fed us on a strict budget. Clothes were primarily functional, not objects of enjoyment. My mother patched them as needed and handed them down from sibling to sibling until they became cleaning rags. My siblings and I happily looked forward to getting new outfits at Christmas, New Year, back-to-school, and birthdays. But the concept of “shopping” as a year-round pastime was totally foreign to my immigrant parents.
I wore that red jacket home the next day, declaring neither the garment nor the dried plums as I went through customs. I wore it whenever I wanted a pop of color for my little black dress or a fun top to dress up my jeans. The red jacket was perfect for dinners, concerts, academic lectures, and even, a grocery run. Friends and neighbors, most of them affiliated with the university, were too sophisticated to comment on the obvious touches of chinoiserie in the jacket. Did they wonder why the heck a Chinese woman was trying to look more “Chinese” by dressing in fake brocade, dotted with imitation calligraphy? If so, they neither asked nor dared to accuse me of cultural appropriation or playing yellow face.
I wore that red jacket so often that the wear and tear began to show. When the stitching around the shoulders and under the arms came apart, I took it to my mother. Naturally, this jook sing daughter had been too busy studying for SATs and acing her AP Western Civ course to learn to sew, but my mother never reproached me for choosing academics over practical skills. To be clear, she hadn’t trained to be a seamstress, either. In fact, my mother was one of the few girls in her village in China to not only complete high school but go on to normal school to become a teacher. As an educated woman, from a liberal-minded, upper-class family, she had had the rare experience of earning her own income and living away from home as a single woman, teaching children in a remote village school during World War II. Her “modern” experience of female independence abruptly ended with the end of the war, the beginning of the Communist regime in China, and her emigration to begin a new life as wife, mother and co-owner and operator of a laundry in Hollywood, CA.
As an immigrant, with a new baby every other year, she had no opportunity to work outside the home, much less teach again. There was, however, great demand at the laundry for her sewing skills. Raised under Depression-era belt-tightening, the laundry’s customers still clung to habits of thrift, despite the relative prosperity of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. While they could afford to patronize a laundry, they wouldn’t think of throwing out a shirt if it could be mended, and they didn’t buy new socks if the old ones could be darned. When they gained or lost weight, they asked my mother to let out or take in the seams accordingly. They asked her to rejuvenate their shirts by turning the collars, exchanging the worn cloth on top for the good-as-new cloth on the underside. She bent over their stiff collars, ripping out the tight stitches by the dim light of the sewing machine lamp after we had all gone to bed. She smiled at their praise and smiled again as she pocketed their tips.
Fortunately for me and my siblings, my mother also served us directly with her skills. After tedious hours of repairing shirts and altering hemlines, she relished the creativity of making clothes for us. Every Easter, my sister and I had brand new, usually matching, dresses. My father’s glossy black and white photos don’t do justice to her love of color, but they perfectly document her instinct for design and her attentiveness to detail. One year, we got dresses with pale lilac bodices over pastel plaid skirts; another spring, we looked like baby chicks in creamy yellow. She lavished us with luxury when it came to trim: dotted Swiss, gros-grain ribbons, and signature finishing touches, like the cute baby duck buttons on the pockets of those yellow Easter dresses or handsome satin piping around cuffs and collars. None of these refinements had a utilitarian function, and that was the real luxury of my mother’s sewing!
It had been half a century since my mother created our matching dresses, and she had given away the vintage Singer sewing machine when she moved in with my sister, but despite her aging eyes, she still had a knack for handling a needle and thread. “Ma-ma, can you help me?” I asked, holding out the jacket. She sighed and frowned at the ragged sleeves and flimsy workmanship but was eager to take on the task. She quickly reached for her sewing kit, a recycled candy tin filled with pins, needles, spools of thread, and scraps of lace and elastics. She took out the worn stub of a discarded candle that she must have squirreled away from some festive occasion and deftly drew the red thread across the wax, making it more manageable. I smiled at the sight of the folksy trick she had used back in the laundry days. I stepped away, leaving the jacket in good hands and my mother, in a good mood. Even into her nineties, she was ever the mother, ever glad to help her children.
A little later, I heard her murmuring in a singsong, high pitched voice and wondered, “What’s that?” I had grown up hearing my father recite classical Chinese poetry, and the sounds coming from my mother’s bedroom sounded strangely familiar. My father had chanted every day in the laundry, a cappella, while pressing shirts, folding sheets, or wrapping up bundles of clothing with crinkly blue paper that came in industrial-sized rolls. Whenever my father got into his poetic vocalizations, my siblings and I squirmed; that singsong voice was exactly how the mean kids at school mocked us as they tugged their cheeks to imitate Asian eyes. Moreover, the vocabulary, intonation, cadence…. none of it bore any relationship to the everyday Toishan dialect we spoke around the kitchen table. To our jook sing ears, his chanting sounded “weird” and alien. We didn’t know that these passages of T’ang and Sung dynasty poems were his ties to childhood and Chinese culture. We didn’t know that the poems offered refuge, memories, and an escape from running a laundry far from home. Secure in the home he made for us, we didn’t know about homesickness. As we kids became more and more assimilated into American life, dad’s high-toned, classical Chinese faded from consciousness. His voice became a kind of white noise for doing homework after school or listening to Vince Scully’s slow, low drone about the Dodgers on a drowsy afternoon.
Now, as I approached the bedroom door, listening to my mother’s chanting, I heard, as well, the memory of my father’s tenor, his love of poetry and his intellectual passion which had been side-tracked by exile, race, class, and painful “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I had never heard my mother reciting these same classical texts, and frankly, it never occurred to me that she, like my father, had also been taught poetry and had had equal, if not greater, access to literary and artistic pursuits. I realized that while I called myself a feminist and had vehemently rebelled against my parents’ obedience to the Confucian tradition of male privilege, I had never revised the childhood casting of my mother as wife, breakfast-maker, nurse, and 24/7 servant to the family’s needs, including being our personal tailor and dressmaker. I shook my jook sing head and belatedly, ruefully recognized her claim to equality, intellectual capital, and autonomy.
From the doorway, I asked, “What’s going on? What’s that you’re singing?” My mother looked up eagerly, calling me by my Chinese name, “Suo- tzu, ah!” Her eyes bright with excitement, she held up the jacket, turning it from side to side, “Look!” She started singing again, but this time, I saw that she wasn’t reciting at all. She was reading the jacket! Her eyes followed the black ideograms against the red cloth, moving along the bodice, the arms, the back, one stanza after the other. She read in that unique cadence dedicated to reciting classical literature, and I heard those “weird” intonations and rhythms which I heretofore thought belonged to my father. She pointed to the individual words, tracing her finger on the black markings, exclaiming, “Jin hai la! Really! I can’t believe it! I learned this poem when I was in middle school! Incredible, it’s right here, here on your jacket!”
I couldn’t believe it, either. All these years, had I been walking around wearing classical literature on my back? How ridiculous! How jook sing! But, of course, I had stamped my little-girl feet and refused to attend Chinese school after spending all day at public school; so, no surprise: I am literally illiterate when it comes to Chinese. I simply assumed that the black squiggles on my jacket were “fake” Chinese characters, randomly woven into the jacket to stand in for words, the way the shiny threads of chrysanthemums and butterflies on the other jackets represented real flora and fauna. I thought the manufacturers had cleverly imitated calligraphy to fool gullible tourists in Chinatowns around the world. I bought the jacket as if to say, “Ha, ha! Can’t fool me…I’ll wear your jacket and flaunt your cultural appropriation!” but it was I, the ironic, smug, self-declared global citizen who turned out to be the fool.
Humbled and ashamed, but mostly amazed, I took a deep breath and said without any irony, “Beautiful, Mom! What does it say?”
“Meng Hao-Jan!” Mom exclaimed in girlish thrall. “A poem by Meng. Hao. Jan,” she repeated, as if naming a rock star. “A very famous man, Suzi… big, very big name….he wrote poetry, very famous in China a long time ago, maybe T’ang dynasty, maybe two thousand years ago…” She tried to give me a crash course on Chinese literature, but between my lack of Chinese history and her lack of English, we didn’t get very far. My mother turned to the poem again, pointing to words here and there on the jacket. “Bird,” read my mother. “Wind… rain… flower… bird… spring…. morning…flower” she pointed, as the lines of the poem repeated themselves all over the jacket. “Hmmmm… this grass writing … fancy, but very hard to read.” “Hmmmm, too bad,” echoed I, pretending to know the difference between the flowing script and plain block-style Chinese characters. “But, don’t worry,” she chuckled triumphantly, “Hah! I memorized it,” she tapped her temple, “. .. and got 100 percent in the class!” She translated the poem, this time, using everyday Toishan dialect, along with interpretive asides.
I (that’s the poet, she added for my benefit) woke up suddenly one morning. It was early, a spring morning (the sun is coming up). The birds were noisy, I heard lots of singing and chattering. The night was noisy, too, with rain and wind all through the night (maybe he was drinking or dreaming). Now I see so many blossoms are on the ground (he is very sad). I don’t know how many flowers fell last night (the wind blew them down and he can’t count them below).” *
Despite the more rustic, more familiar Chinese she employed to accommodate my jook sing limitations, the classical poem was poignant. It was both simple and profound, immediate yet transcendent. I saw why Chinese children were assigned to memorize this poem as homework. I saw why the jacket designers borrowed it. Against the cheap rayon canvas, the words stood out with abiding beauty, linking the 21st century with the timeless experience of loss and resilience. Long ago on a spring morning, Meng Hao-jan jotted down the words, awakened by birdsong, wondering at the ravages of a stormy night, and now, my mother, re-awakened by the poem to wonder at her long life and its many losses along the way: her parents, her brothers, her village in Toishan, the home she grew up in, and the dreams of a schoolgirl who had memorized Meng Hao-jan, never imagining she would re-visit the beloved poem through a chance encounter at the far end of her life.
I bent down to give her a hug and said “Ou dyeh” into her good ear; she dismissed it with a quick wave of her hand, thinking I was thanking her for the sewing. “No, no,” I exclaimed. “I mean ‘thank you’ for the special poem!” and added that I was impressed she had remembered all of it. “Oh, that!” she laughed with renewed delight, but then, shrugged, with both modesty and pride, “Of course! Poor jook sing girl… of course, I remember. If you’re Chinese, you don’t forget. Ever.”
When she finished her sewing, she gave me back the jacket. But we both knew that beyond the precise stitching and fastidious handiwork, she had given me much more. I tried on the jacket, wriggling my shoulders and twirling full circle to show off her accomplishment and express my admiration, “Wow, nice! This jacket feels brand new!”
Epilogue: When I got home that night, I dusted off my graduate school skills to do a little research on Meng Hao-jan. Indeed, he was a rock star. Wikipedia and scores of literary scholars of Asian poetry recount the same details: Meng Hao-jan (689-740), a foremost poet of the T’ang Dynasty, failed his civil service exams, but unlike fellow scholar-poets, he never wanted a career or high rank. He preferred to sleep in, live in solitude, and roam spontaneously and freely in the Hsiang-yang region’s winding rivers and wild, majestic mountains.
In addition, most biographies mention that the T’ang dynasty, or T’ang Empire (618-907) represented the apex in Chinese civilization, a golden age for the arts and literature. Mastery of poetry was especially esteemed in this period; it was de rigueur for entering into the ranks of civil service, and a prerequisite for anyone aspiring to status in society. Meng Hao-jan rejected both the life of the intelligentsia and their complacent literary conventions. He established a new poetics rooted in spareness, simplicity, and spontaneity born of his independent spirit and his wanderings in nature.
In so doing, he set a new standard for the extraordinary poets who followed; Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Li Po, and others, who revered him and dedicated poems to him. These renowned poets, in turn, inspired future generations of Chinese writers. T’ang dynasty poetry continued to influence writers into modern times, not only in China, but in many other countries and other languages. Today, Meng Hao-jan continues to inspire a new generation of artists and thinkers who resonate with his emphasis on meditation, ecology, and empathy.
Scholars of literature, critics, linguists, and translators deepen the legacy of T’ang dynasty poetry by examining not only the texts but also their fascinating contexts. Research reveals, for example, that my mother’s decoding of the poem on the jacket was facilitated by the fact that it was written in the oldest or longest-prevailing writing system in the world. Her fingers traced the same “Hanzi” or logograms that were written in China centuries ago, permitting us to read Meng Hao-jan’s words on the red cloth today.
Research also supports the idea that these ancient poems had been recited in the spoken Chinese of the T’ang dynasty. Although the intonations and oratory flourishes are now designated “Classical” or “Literary” Chinese and heard only in ceremonial contexts, the poets recited them in what was considered contemporary, ordinary, vernacular speech. Although I had childishly dismissed the elocutions as “weird” or unnatural, I now realize that my parents were living ventriloquists for T’ang dynasty poets. Thanks to them, I can hear Meng Hao-jan’s poem in a voice as alive and musical as the birds waking the poet that long-ago morning:
In spring sleep, dawn arrives unnoticed.
Suddenly, all around, I hear birds in song.
A loud night. Wind and rain came, tearing
blossoms down. Who knows few or many?
*My favorite translation of the oft-translated poem is by scholar, translator, poet David Hinton, The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan (New York: Archipelago Books, 2004)
Suzi Wong is a founder of the Asian American Studies Center at U.C.L.A. She has been a teacher and school administrator in the U.S. and Canada; she recently retired as director of principal gifts at the University of Georgia. Having raised, with Jed Rasula, two awesome daughters, her own philanthropy focuses on empowering women through education, and she has served on the boards of the Ban Righ Foundation in Canada and the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, both of which support women’s learning through scholarships and advocacy. For nearly twenty years, she has been a student and perpetual beginner at the Athens Zen Center
When not writing postcards to promote voter participation, she contemplates everyday encounters that provoke unexpected insight. This story, a birthday homage to her mother, reveals a reckoning with just that kind of moment. “My mother would be 103 this month. Mom, even though I was a most difficult student, you remain my best teacher.”