Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved movies; their inherent glamor and drama inform so much of what Americans culturally yearn to achieve. Yet as a mixed-race Chinese-Anglo-Irish American girl, I never saw a movie that directly depicted or addressed my existence.
In the documentary Step, high-school girls in inner city Baltimore compete on a dance team to win the championship and be the first in their families to go to college. Their fate literally depends on the steps of their own two feet.
The story went that my great-grandmother cried so much and so loudly for three months that her family finally unbound her feet.
Because her family were Northern Chinese, Shandong people, and tall, my great-grandmother’s feet had been bound at an especially young age when she was about three years old. The big toe was left as is, and the four smaller toes crushed towards the pad of each foot, and then tight strips of cloth were tied around her foot, pushing the toes towards the heel. The point was to break the arch, and to prevent the foot from ever growing, so that it would remain the ideal size of a “three-inch golden lotus.” Wealthy families had been binding their girls’ feet since the Tang dynasty in the 8th century AD, and my great-grandmother’s family had had no intention of stopping. After all, who would marry a girl with big feet? Not a man from a wealthy family. Only a poor man who needed a wife to work in his fields.
But my great-grandmother cried so ferociously that her family began to seek new solutions.
This was the late 19th century, and people’s ideas were beginning to change. American missionaries had come to Shandong. They brought Western medicine and established hospitals and co-educational schools. When they came to my great-grandmother’s family’s compound, no one was particularly interested in their tales of Heaven and Hell, but they listened when the missionaries said they could help the youngest daughter. They promised to educate her in the Western style, which was considered modern and daring, and they promised that she would be able to find a husband when she grew up, a man who would not care whether a girl’s feet were large or small because he too would have been educated in this manner.
So my great-grandmother’s family decided to take this risk. They unbound her feet and let the missionaries educate her in this new American style, and when she was old enough, she married a Chinese man educated in this new way, too. And when my grandmother was born, no one tried to bind her feet. She was educated alongside her brothers, and she became one of the first eight women in China admitted into a public university in 1920.
I know this story because my great-grandmother told her daughter, my grandmother, who told my mother (her daughter-in-law) who told me. However, I don’t even know my great-grandmother’s name. The only records we still have list her simply as Ms. Shao.
Historians now think that foot-binding began in the Tang dynasty in imitation of the toe shoes that an emperor’s favorite concubine wore. She was a dancer, but this detail was forgotten. All the girls whose feet were molded and broken to fit into her fetishized shoes would never dance a day in their lives.
In the melodrama, Joanne Woodward plays a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Long-suffering housewife Eve White becomes fun-loving Eve Black at night and only sturdy, third personality, Jane, can unite them all.
My Irish-American grandmother believed the man was the head of the household even if he beat you and drank. She stayed with Gramps for 50 years, even though he did both. God took a rib from Adam’s side and created Eve to serve. Helpmeet.
When my niece at twenty announced she was going to marry, I excused myself to go to the kitchen to cry.
When I returned, her boyfriend said there were three things he believed in:
1) Abortion was wrong.
2) Same-sex marriage should not be legal.
The third I could not remember for the longest time. After the first two, what was there to say.
For the wedding, which I did not attend, my niece wore a white, open-backed gown with rhinestones along the neckline and waist. She’d had her first French manicure and her hair fixed in an up-do by the hairdresser in Ft. Collins.
She wore false eyelashes like a Kardashian.
And in the selfie she posted on Instagram, she held a bouquet of wild flowers plucked from her other aunt’s garden.
I blew the picture up on my screen, peered close for the tell-tale signs. Check if the eyes are smiling.
But her face was ecstatic, joyful, like the baby girl I remember splashing in the tub for the first time, blowing bubbles off her outstretched hands.
Beautiful at twenty, with round, smooth cheeks, elongated eyes, naturally wavy hair escaping the veil in tendrils.
She has chosen this path to spite me, I decided. I had loved her imperfectly and this was her revenge. She must have known that this is the last path that I would have chosen for her.
To escape her mother’s violent fate, my mother married a Chinese man. The marriage wasn’t legal in all 50 states yet, but she believed American men were a danger.
Later, white men shot at our house and killed our dogs, shouted racial slurs as they drove by on weekends. Their wives sent anonymous notes in the mail, called my mother a floozy, my father a chinaman. Kids at school said my brother and I were a sign of the End Times, when the Devil would reign for a thousand years. God had separated the races on purpose.
I fled that small town for college on a scholarship. Chose school and a career over marriage. I thought knowledge would protect me.
Thinking of my niece’s choice, I wondered if it felt safer the closer to the flame.
There are things in the culture that we can’t even see, a friend counseled.
Then out of the blue, between thoughts of the weather and dinner, I remembered. The third thing that the boyfriend believed in.
“The man is the head of the household,” he said.
And me, cursed by God. This cycle. This pain above my rib.
George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) feels unappreciated in his small, white Midwestern town and is ready to commit suicide on Christmas Eve until an angel straight from Heaven comes to show him how much everyone loves George. No one comes to help George’s underappreciated and long-suffering wife, Mary. A holiday classic.
In the one video we took of our family, my mother spoke into the camera, showing off the Christmas tree. Then a pan down to the dogs sitting on the cream carpet.
My brother’s dogs had mated. My brother liked to pick dogs from the pound. By Christmas, the male was already long dead. He was shot in a ditch in front of the house, but the female—smaller, faster—had lived this long, long enough to get pregnant and give birth to seven large-boned puppies.
Go on, get in there. My mother was losing patience.
I didn’t want to be photographed. I was looking at the dogs and wondering how long they’d live till they were all shot, too.
The men had been driving by our house shooting since the first year we moved here, to the farm, to the “simple life” that my parents thought they wanted when they decided to move from the East Coast to South Dakota.
The first time was the middle of the night. My parents, brother, and me tumbled in our pajamas to peek into the dark gravel road. The car was long gone by the time my mother reached the sheriff, her voice stretched taut on the phone.
What do you want me to do about it? the sheriff asked.
There was no investigation. The shooters had left, after all.
The white men came weekly, pointing their guns at our house. We posted “No Hunting” signs. The men still came, shooting.
Then the first dog was shot. My brother and I saw the trail of blood as we got off the school bus. Braver than I, my brother followed it into the tall grass. He picked up his dog’s limp body in his arms and howled.
My brother brought another dog from the pound. A golden dog he named Tiger. Three months later it was shot in the face at the end of the driveway.
My mother stopped calling the sheriff. My father wouldn’t do it either. My mother had the standard American accent. If they wouldn’t listen to her, what chance did he have?
Years passed. You’d think people would have gotten used to us, the mixed-race family, the Chinese man married to the white woman, the chinaman and the floozy, as the kids said in school.
My parents fought all the time but not about the dogs. They argued about things that puzzled me as a child: the weather, the wind, dinner.
Now I was causing trouble. I wouldn’t come and pet the puppies for the Christmas video. All this we’d been through, and I had to be a pain.
Don’t be a sourpuss! Mama commanded. Get over there!
I scooted into frame, placed a sweet bundle of fur in my lap. The dog, unsuspecting, licked my hand.
There! my mother said to the camera, to prove to whoever received this video that the family was well, all of us together. There! my mother said again. That’s a merry Christmas!
The film starred Meryl Streep as the Baroness Karen Blixon, running her husband’s plantation, er, farm in Nairobi while romancing Robert Redford. This film actually won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
“Meryl Streep should play Nai-nai in a movie,” my mother said.
We were watching TV on the sofa. Maybe it was the Academy Awards. Maybe a clip of Meryl was playing on the screen.
“She can’t,” I said. “She’s white and Nai-nai’s Chinese.”
“Oh, Meryl Streep could do it,” my mother insisted. “She could wear makeup and she could study the accent. She would do a great job!”
“But she shouldn’t!” I said.” A Chinese actress should play Nai-nai!”
My mother was not convinced. She loved Meryl Streep, the way a Meryl Streep film guaranteed a (white) woman’s experience would be centered, the accents exotic but the Western European facial features comforting. Perhaps her movies made my mother feel safer in the world, as though she could expect to find a familiar face in every country, in every story about any (white) woman. My mother could not understand why I did not love Meryl Streep movies, too.
Once when I was visiting for the weekend, we got into an argument about Out of Africa. Mama had it in the VCR and she wanted me to watch it with her.
“I can’t stand that movie. It’s so racist!”
“I love Meryl Streep. She’s such a good actress—” my mother began.
“She plays a white woman who runs a plantation in Africa. She’s stealing land from the Africans! There’s a scene where Iman is kneeling down before her. Iman, the supermodel Iman! I can’t stand that film!”
“I wouldn’t do that,” my mother said. “I would build schools—”
“They don’t need your schools. If white people didn’t steal their land, Africans could build their own schools!”
My mother was silent for a minute. “I think I like the scenes with Robert Redford. He sits and just looks at her. She tells him stories and he just listens to her while looking like he adores her. Men don’t do that in real life. Movies are better,” she said.
In the classic film noir, Joan Crawford played the titular mother, who works selflessly to make her spoiled daughter, Veda, a star, but the daughter remains ashamed of Mildred’s working-class roots. Mildred is ultimately betrayed by Veda, clearly the most ungrateful daughter on earth.
At the end of her life my mother moved in with me so that I could take care of her while she underwent chemotherapy.
We used to argue then, my mother angry at the choices I had made: I was in graduate school, studying Chinese literature and language. She looked at my books, my dictionaries, my piles of homework, and declared that I was wasting my time.
“You’re half me,” she said. “You’re my daughter, too.”
“I have a right to be proud of my Chinese heritage,” I said.
She looked away, as though even the sight of me caused her pain.
I could write complicated papers about the construction of race and colonization, the Chinese Exclusion Act and Manifest Destiny, but I could not talk to my mother in words that made her understand: I love you. I will always love you. I could not find the words to heal the damage that others had done to us. I was a daughter standing at the end of her mother’s life and all my words were just letters broken in my mouth.
Bill Murray plays a narcissistic weatherman who must learn empathy in order to break a karmic cycle that causes him to relive the same Groundhog Day over and over. But because this cult classic still upholds the patriarchy, he is rewarded with Andie MacDowell. What her character did to deserve such punishment is never clear.
I am writing this to break the cycle. I am writing this to break the cycle of silence. I am writing this to break the cycle of erasure. I am writing this to break the cycle of silencing erasure. I am writing this to break the cycle of misogyny. I am writing this to break the cycle of racism. I am writing this to break the silence about the violence. I am writing this to break the violent. I am writing this to write my history. I am writing this to write my family’s history. I am writing this to break the erasure of my history. I am writing this to break the erasure of my family. I am writing this to break the erasure of my family’s history. I am writing this to break the erasure of my family’s history of erasure. I am writing this to break down the history of erasure and misogyny and racism. I am writing this to break down the history of erasure and silence. I am writing this story my history my family’s history. I am writing this story to center the violence of erasure. I am writing this story my story to center my survival. I am writing my survival. I am writing to break the cycle.