Every time Nora calls, her mother asks her: Will you be coming home for Christmas? They don’t even celebrate, it’s just that plane tickets are cheapest on Christmas Day. The more insistently Ma asks, the less Nora feels like calling, and then it is November. They haven’t spoken for a month and all of the prices have risen. Still, Nora doesn’t call to say that she won’t be coming. It feels impossible, even when her phone is already in her hands. Her phone is always in her hands. She throws it to the other side of the couch and tells herself that it’s healthy to rest her eyes, like her mother tells her. Then another day goes by without calling home.

So she won’t go home for Christmas. She will stay where she is. She won’t see Ba or Ma for a while—so what? She has her dissertation to work on. Last week, Nora received an email from her advisor, Jennifer Davis-Davey, “reaching out in the hopes that we may find time to meet re: your dissertation proposal.” Signed: “Rgds, JDD.” Jennifer—who never goes by Professor Davis-Davey—is always dropping extreme abbreviations like “re:” into the middle of her correspondence, something that makes Nora’s jaw clench with anxiety. Jennifer is always behind on emails, she is overbooked, she doesn’t have the time to type out “regarding” or to meet with graduate students whose proposals should already have been approved by the department.

So Nora doesn’t have the time to call home, to fly back to Maryland for Christmas. How can her parents object? They are the ones who pushed her to go to graduate school in the first place.

“You can do your own work, you can choose your own research,” her father used to say to her. “It’s not the same when you work for a company and have to follow somebody else’s orders.” A retired professor of mathematics, he had always hoped she would follow in his footsteps, or, even better, work in medicine, engineering, or astrophysics. Instead, Nora chose English. She specializes in Victorian literature. He knows little about the discipline and doesn’t necessarily care to know more about the field, its total lack of tenure-track vacancies. He is simply reassured that Nora will come out at the end of it with a PhD to her name.

Her mother is different—she is personally invested. She is always asking about what Nora is reading, always trying to participate. She’s nagged her to send along every paper, syllabus, article, literature review. Even during Nora’s undergrad, she insisted on a lengthy, fruitless FaceTime discussion of Nora’s first assignment, a five-page response to “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

“Who is this Charlotte Gilman woman?” she had said. “Why does she talk like that? I looked at your syllabus. Where are all the classics? You say that you study real literature—so where is Anna Karenina? Where is Eugene Onegin?”

“I’m studying English literature, Ma,” Nora had said, through gritted teeth. “Anglophone literature. Not comparative. This isn’t China. The Soviet Union is over.”

“Well, alright. What does your poor mother know anyway? It took me ten days to read your paper, one hand holding a dictionary open the entire time. You have to take it easy on me. I’ve never studied this real literature of yours. I don’t know anything.”

And it is true, she doesn’t know anything. She has never read Chaucer or Milton or Joyce. The only things that she can refer to are censored Chinese translations of Russian novels that she read during her youth in Beijing, the quotes delivered in a complex Mandarin that Nora doesn’t understand. Her mother grew up during the Cultural Revolution, missed her education because the schools were closed, married the son of a family friend and came to the United States when he got into graduate school. The same week that Nora was born, he secured a teaching post, and after that Ma spent her days in the suburbs of Washington DC, ironing his shirts, washing his dishes, raising their only child.

Since childhood, Nora feels she has been raised to be different from her mother. Ma has never said the right thing, always laughs at the wrong places. When her father’s friends came over, Ma sat silently by his side. Ba and his friends would engage in heated debates about the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, slamming their palms, red-faced, while her mother boiled water for tea.

But Ba has called on Nora to sit at the table since she could speak—something that brought her immense pride as a child, and, these days, uneasy pity towards her mother.

“What do you think, Nora? Can China’s growing service sector offset the slow decline of labor-intensive manufacturing?”

Her father taught her to ask questions, clarify terms, pick apart issues, and construct nuanced responses, all while her mother came in and out of the room, refilling bowls of peanuts and stacking up dirty dishes to put into the sink.

Now that her father has retired, he finds ways to fill his time. He spends days reading newspapers, calling his friends, sorting through old photographs. Her mother no longer has to pack his lunch or patch his work clothes. Yet she is unable to find a hobby of her own. Instead, she has doubled down on her commitment to Nora’s work.

“Send me the syllabus you’re working on. Send me all the documents you’ve already compiled,” she says. “I want to look at them all—my own daughter, teaching a class of her own! If only I could sit in the back of the room and listen to you speak.”

Laying on the moldy yellow couch in her shared graduate housing, Nora groans. She is only a teaching assistant, a job included as part of her funding package. She doesn’t lecture, she grades papers and leads supplementary discussion groups. But this isn’t worth explaining to Ma. It isn’t worth sending her the readings either—it takes her ages to look through them, paging through her dictionaries, inspecting every word of every article. Even so, Nora suspects that the sentences are still too complex for her. Her mother doesn’t take joy in the intellectual act, she just likes to marvel at all that evades her. She loves nothing more than to call her friends and declare: “Nora is so smart, such a scholar, that I can’t understand a word of anything that she reads or writes…”

Nora despises her for saying this, for celebrating it. She loathes the ways in which Ma constantly demeans herself. It is as if her mother has substituted Nora’s existence for her own. This is why Nora cannot stand to call her. She can’t bear hearing Ma say another time: “Will you be coming home for Christmas?” It’s excruciating, hearing the bald hopefulness in her voice. Why can’t Ma say: “Nora, come home for Christmas.” Or, “I want you to come home for Christmas. You should come home for Christmas.” Or even something like: “Won’t you come home for Christmas?” One command or legitimate appeal and Nora knows she will say yes and buy the tickets right away. Instead, Ma says “Will you be coming home for Christmas?”, as if home is a hotel that Nora only deigns to pass through.

She won’t call, she needs to be independent and firm in her boundaries. She needs to tidy the kitchen and grade her papers and then sit down in the library and finish revising her proposal. Nora sits up on the couch now and opens the file on her laptop. She tells herself to read through it again, but she already knows what’s wrong with it. Her thesis is too broad and frankly unfocused; searching desperately for a last-minute topic, she landed upon the distinct syntax of Eliot in Middlemarch, atop a cushy pile of prior scholarship that her research topic barely engages with.

“It’s good to know your strengths,” Jennifer Davis-Davey had commented at their last meeting. “Yours is certainly close reading. It’s worth considering, however, if you might risk relying on it—too much?”

She had looked thoughtfully at Nora as she said this, her expression benevolent yet withering. And Nora had looked to the floor, so great was her humiliation. Nora, who has always aspired to be some kind of theory mastermind.

Still hunched on the couch, Nora opens up a blank email and begins to compose a response to JDD:

“Hello Jennifer!

Hi Jennifer,

Hi Jennifer, thanks for your helpful feedback at our last meeting. I’ve been revising my proposal to have a more analytical structure

In order to raise the stakes of my argument, I am planning

I will propose

New interpretive frameworks???”

Within five minutes Nora has deleted every line of the email and put the blank draft in the trash. The most obvious issue with her proposal, actually, is that Nora hasn’t done enough work in the past few months. She checks social media and then the whole day passes by. She can see all of the conferences, parties, and coffee shop study dates the rest of her cohort is attending, but she doesn’t know anything about their ideas or their progress. She won’t look at the Screen Time app on her phone, she knows it’s abysmal, and every day she feels incapable of everything: incapable of knowing anything, of knowing herself, of knowing anything about how she is supposed to be in relation to other people.

The deeper issue with the proposal is that Nora does not actually like Middlemarch. This is distinct from the former, more obvious issue, but closely related to it. Nora has, in fact, started suspecting that she does not like Victorian literature anymore, or even books as a whole. She is coming to accept a deep-seated certainty that she never was pursuing the academic path out of love, but rather out of a foolish, vacant desire to prove herself, publish a few papers, wear a tweed suit, sign her emails “Dr.” and then validate, for her mother, that it was all worth it: the years of alienation, the sense of severance, the cost of long distance telephone calls and the loneliness of the kitchen, where Ma stands alone, waiting for a response. For years, Nora’s mother has called her own mother in Beijing every Sunday, hanging up and then passing on to Nora her grandmother’s messages, things like: happy birthday, happy new year, how cold is it over there? Stay warm, eat well.

“It will be hard,” Ba had said to her, while Nora was writing her graduate school applications. “Especially in the last year. But push through it and you will be successful.”

How did he push through it? What pulled him through to the other side? Was it a love for differential geometry alone? Was it the need to escape the past? That must be it, Nora thinks—that’s why tears fall from his face during public performances of the 1812 Overture on the Fourth of July. But Nora herself has already been born with everything. American citizenship, good health insurance coverage, and the tendency to believe that all things in the universe converge upon who she is and where she stands. And so Nora’s greatest fear is that her privilege eclipses her: that she has nothing more to say for it, that she can want for nothing but the proof that she deserves it.

She deserves it, she often insists to herself, because of her work, her own hard work. So many hours doing homework in high school, participating in extracurriculars, never sleeping enough. That’s why she’s so short. In undergraduate, weeks of solitude, long nights, granola bars. At commencement the class speaker joked that “of course none of us ever finished all of the readings”—and Nora looked down and felt sad, holding her rolled up diploma, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa and she had finished all of the readings, and highlighted them, and taken notes. Where had that energy come from? Now that she is in graduate school, Nora wonders if her drive has been permanently lost. Increasingly she is convinced that she made it to university not because of her own hard work, but because of Ma’s. The sacrifices it took to raise her now debts on her back she must repay. Ma is the proof she deserves it. Every road leads back to her.

Sitting in her living room, surrounded by dirty mugs and unorganized stacks of loose papers, Nora blinks hard several times and looks out the window. It’s a trick for relieving eye strain that her mother taught her: every twenty minutes of reading, look out at the trees in the distance. Observe the dimensions of their colors, discern the spaces and shadows between their leaves. Repeat for twenty seconds, every twenty minutes, and you will never suffer headaches or find yourself going blind.

Finally, Nora sends a chirpy email to Jennifer Davis-Davey, making no promises for her proposal revisions but providing a somewhat fabricated schedule of her availability that week. Technically, Nora is always free, but she can’t bring herself to reveal this to her.

Despite her busy schedule, JDD’s reply appears before Nora has even closed her email window. “Thursday noon great. J”

The swiftness of Jennifer’s reply feels incriminating to Nora. There are too many things Nora has been putting off, for too long.
But still she won’t call home. She doesn’t want to. What Nora actually wants is to cut herself off from her mother, to establish distance, something she has repeatedly resolved to do since she was nine, when she found her diary sitting on the coffee table under her mother’s reading glasses. Nora’s diary, bought with her own red envelope money from New Year’s, which she kept, always, stashed beneath her pillow.

“Why on earth would I bother reading your boring little diary?” Ma had said, when Nora confronted her. She settled into her reading chair and handed the journal back to Nora, then picked up the copy of TIME magazine that had been sitting beneath it.

Nora had been crying, frustrated and inconsolable.

“At least try and work on your handwriting,” her mother had advised. “Either my English is bad or your letters really are indecipherable.”

If her mother’s English was bad, then Nora needed to learn bigger words. She didn’t stop keeping a diary after that incident. Instead, she expanded her vocabulary and developed a cipher-like cursive script that she knew Ma would have difficulty reading. She became distrustful of her mother, quick to slam the cover shut if she came around. But her mother was always one step ahead: when Nora won fifty dollars for her stellar performance in the county spelling bee, she had to let Ma keep the check.

“You owe it to me,” Ma said, beaming proudly. “What don’t you owe me? I’ve made you everything you are. I’ve given you everything you know.”

And is she wrong? Nora once told this story to her friends in college, but never again. They were alarmed—they become alarmed every time that Nora complains about her mother to them. You both need to go to therapy, they’ll say, she’s stifling, she’s cruel. Your relationship to your mother shouldn’t be like that. It should be nurturing, it shouldn’t be controlling, she should tell you that she loves you. And then, no matter how upset or annoyed Nora felt in the beginning, she regrets complaining and finds herself jumping to her mother’s defense.

It is true, they often fought, especially when Nora was a child. She remembers once that her mother kicked her in the stomach. It took Nora’s breath away, not necessarily just the force of her foot, but the surprising fact that she could swing her leg up so high. Nora remembers the short gasp escaping from her lips, the sharp pain, how her mother stumbled slightly.

Even during those times, they would never say things like I love you or I am sorry or please, excuse me. After the culmination of every fight at home Nora would run to her room and slam the door, leaving her mother seething in the kitchen. Within an hour or so, once they had both cried themselves out, she would hear mother call her name. And then she would go back downstairs to find a plate of fresh fruit and a clean fork set out on the kitchen counter. The day she kicked her in the stomach was around the beginning of her first year of high school—they had been fighting over which classes Nora was taking. She remembers because the persimmon that her mother peeled and quartered was particularly astringent. In the early autumn they are still hard like apples, nothing like the marvelously jellylike fruits that you can eat with a spoon by the end of the year.

The blank screen of Nora’s phone practically bulges now with her mother’s impatience. It is an insistent presence, sitting on her desk. Nora can feel the urgency of Ma’s questions from miles away. What went wrong? If everything had gone smoothly, then wouldn’t Nora already have called to say: proposal approved, tickets home purchased?

What can Nora do but accept her mother’s love for her. Now that she has moved far away from home, they fight much less. In fact, whenever Nora does call, she experiences an almost indescribably extreme sense of relief just hearing her mother pick up the phone. Mundane things like the price of chives in the Chinese supermarket, fluctuations in air pressure, her monthly bank statement switching from paper to electronic—these boring facts of daily life all come tumbling out of her mouth, as if she’s been saving them this whole time to tell somebody. Ma always listens. Every call, they speak for hours. Nora’s throat even feels sore when they hang up, but her body feels fresh and light, as if her mother is a conduit through which she can dissolve her anxieties.

Nora stops drinking coffee forty-eight hours before her meeting with Jennifer Davis-Davey, lest she finds herself jittery, paranoid, blathering, or otherwise flustered at a crucial moment in Jennifer’s presence. Twenty-four hours before her meeting, she opens up the final draft of her proposal on her laptop and then immediately clicks it shut again. She decides that she won’t read it beforehand; she’ll freestyle a defense during the meeting and the pressure will spontaneously conjure up closer connections between all of her ideas. Her many ideas.

Twelve hours prior, Nora comes to accept that she won’t be able to freestyle anything. It is two in the morning. She has read through the proposal, confirming that every idea within is truly trite, uninspired, uninteresting. She can’t sleep and her palms are both lifelessly cold and abundantly moist at the same time. Slumped atop the toilet, her bowels surging forth in agitation, Nora feels very much alone. She puts her phone down on the bathroom floor. It sits there silently, shiny and meek, as if apologizing to her: I’m sorry, Nora, but there’s nothing of which I can notify you.

Nora can feel it rising up from her bare feet to her knees, the urge to call, the need to hear her voice. It is the middle of the night, but Nora knows that Ma won’t mind. She will wake up and pick up the phone when she sees her daughter’s name.

Every door in the entire universe is open to you, Mama will say. You are the best daughter anybody could have, and you are mine, and you are so smart and so special and if you come home to me, I will take care of you for the rest of time.

Sitting there, half-naked and shivering, Nora remembers that her mother loves her more than anything in the world. In the moment, this fact, which she usually finds so oppressive and exasperating, brings Nora first comfort—and then, at once, the warm and familiar feeling of shame.

Hot Spring Ghost Story

My father, Yongli, told me this story, but I think he left some things out.