The following essay is from the new anthology “Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19”:
Living with joy, even if imperfectly, is a kind of salvation.
My mother, a kind and generous soul, was a perfectionist when it came to the definition of a good Chinese daughter. Dumpling wrappers were rolled out to perfectly uniform thickness, then cut and pleated around the finely chopped filling. Woks weren’t clean unless they were scrubbed with steel wool. The water for cooking rice needed to be exactly deep enough to cover the first segment of your index finger when you touched a fingertip to the surface of the raw rice.
“But Ma,” I would ask, “what if someone has freakishly long fingers, like Cousin Wu? Or what if the pot is tall and thin instead of—” I’d break off at the sight of her narrowed eyes. My mother often warned me that if I didn’t shape up, there would be consequences. Now that my husband and two sons are cooped up with me in COVID-19 lockdown, I understand what she meant.
Our family had been quite wealthy in China, but over the course of our immigration to the United States, we lost everything. At five years old, I found myself living in an unheated, roach-infested apartment in the slums of Brooklyn. After school each day, my father would bring me to the sweatshop in Chinatown to help work as best I could.
Despite the rats that crept alongside our mattresses every night, my old-fashioned mother maintained her dignity and her standards, especially regarding her youngest daughter’s behavior. Anything that might have helped me learn any degree of athleticism was considered unladylike and therefore forbidden: skipping, running, turning cartwheels. Furthermore, there was no time or money for any extracurricular activity that might have nourished coordination, like ballet or swimming. My friends at school giggled over their dance recitals and new tutus while I listened with envy and admiration. And finally, worst of all, I was a dreamy, impractical child, a hopeless combination of cluelessness and curiosity.
I melted the plastic handle of one of my mother’s cherished pots while boiling water because I forgot to keep an eye on the flames. I secretly took apart my father’s radio to see how it worked—I was planning to put it back together, really—and was caught on our worn vinyl floor, surrounded by tiny screws and parts. Glasses and bowls slipped out of my hands as if they had been greased. My family would call me repeatedly to sweep the floor, only to find me staring out the window, dreaming of other lives and worlds. As a Chinese daughter, I was an unmitigated disaster.
In some ways, school wasn’t much better. After I learned English, my talent for learning kicked in and my classmates started calling me the “Queen of the Brains.” This was no help in gym, where my gym teacher yelled at me to climb the rope hanging from the ceiling while I stared at him as if he were insane. I was also nearsighted, yet nothing could convince me to wear my huge purple glasses. (Despite my ill-fitting clothing and frizzy hair, I still had a bit of vanity left.) The result was that any ball headed in my direction was a blur at best, and I’d simply try to avoid it. However, I was good at all of the other subjects, so I experienced that duality of being considered a success in the outside world and an utter failure at home.
When I was accepted to Harvard, my family rejoiced—not because I would receive an excellent education, but because they would not need to find a man willing to marry and support me, something they had long considered impossible. To this day, when my brothers see my Dutch husband, they pat him gently on the back and say things like, “Are you all right? We know your life is very hard.”
At Harvard, I took the terrible Chinese daughter thing a step further and decided I wanted to become a writer instead of a physicist. Although I was working up to four jobs to support myself, I found time for the dance lessons I had long desired. At the beginning, I was the worst student in every dance class. One dance teacher had to stifle a giggle in her sleeve after seeing my legs tangle themselves up. But I still loved dance and dreamed of finding grace—of becoming fierce, strong, in control of my body. And so I persevered.
After graduation, I moved back to New York City. Searching for a day job that would allow me to write at night, I spotted an ad in the paper that read, “Wanted: Professional Ballroom Dancer, Will Train.” I was terrified to apply, but in the end, I did. During the grueling audition process, I could see that the other women were better trained, more coordinated, prettier, friendlier, and none of them were clumsy in the slightest. I stayed out of stubbornness and desire. I knew there was no chance they would give me the job. And yet, somehow, they did.
That was when my real training as a dancer began. My legs untangled themselves. I became aware of my center, my feet, my arms and head. I spent years teaching and performing in shows and competitions before I went to Columbia to get my MFA in fiction. I lied to my mother, who had never learned to speak English, and told her I was working as a computer programmer. I was busted years later, when I had become a bestselling author and an interview about me and my dance past ran on the front page of the largest Chinese newspaper in the U.S.
But I’m still clumsy. The other professional dancers always teased me in a kind way about how my eyeliner was always crooked and my nails were a disgrace. I ask for no water when I appear on television because I’m likely to spill it on my interviewer. If someone throws a ball at me, I duck. I have crashed into more people and inanimate objects on my bicycle than I can count. No sane person would ever allow me to drive a car. And I am still problematic enough in the kitchen that when I asked my kids if they wanted me to make pancakes for them as a treat, they cried, “Oh no, not your pancakes!”
Imagine being in lockdown with a person like me as primary cook and caretaker. Thank goodness my husband does all of the cleaning. He took over the ironing as well after he saw the burns on my skin. He is, however, even more incompetent in the kitchen than I am. In these frightening times, when we are all separated from friends and family, I long for old-fashioned Chinese comfort food, which I have no idea how to make.
My mother passed away a number of years ago and I miss her terribly. As often happens, I realize that so much of what she tried to teach me was right: Don’t cross against the light. Be kind to others. Good health is everything. Don’t burn the rice.
I hear her voice in my head as my husband and kids stand around the trash can during our daily ritual of scraping burnt toast. I have hidden many a cooking misstep in the past but in lockdown, there are no more secrets. My 13-year-old son peered into the garbage, where I’d tossed some cookies that turned out, miraculously, both raw and charred, and said gently, “At least Papa won’t get too fat this way.”
And yet all is not lost. Something I learned from growing up in poverty is that happiness comes from within. We all have infinite resources—dreams, stories, hope—inside of us. We are rich if we have a roof over our heads, enough food to satisfy our hunger, love and kindness in our homes. My kids are learning to cook themselves and now keep an eagle eye on the oven if something yummy is baking in it. Although I haven’t danced in years, the four of us prance around to dance apps every day to get some fun and exercise. It’s goofy dancing, but it sparks the same joy as my old passion for dance. Perhaps even more, because now I can share it with the ones I love. We had very busy lives that would sometimes pull us all in different directions, but in this period of lockdown, we have learned to make time for each other again.
Finally, I find myself thinking about my clumsiness and my eternal search for grace. Grace, to me, is another word for compassion toward others and yourself. Perhaps grace is about not trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Perhaps grace is finding your own unique strengths and developing those as best you can. Grace is doing what you love and loving what you do. So, in that sense, I suppose I can say that I have found grace during lockdown. And that maybe I’m not such a bad Chinese daughter after all.
Jean Kwok is the award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling author of “Searching for Sylvie Lee,” “Girl in Translation” and “Mambo in Chinatown.” Her work has been published in 20 countries and taught in universities, colleges and high schools around the world. This essay of Jean's was excerpted from the new anthology “Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19,” edited by Jennifer Haupt. All proceeds from "Alone Together" benefit independent booksellers through the BINC Foundation.