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When my mother asked to read my book, “Red Envelope,” I told her, “You don’t have to read it.”
She said, “I want to read it.”
“It’s in English.”
“I can read English.”
I knew she could, but I knew she also struggled with it and probably hadn’t read an entire story, even a short story like mine, in ages—if ever. This all danced around the issue of not wanting my mother to read “Red Envelope” because I knew she would react to it a certain way. I threw up another smoke screen.
“There’s sex in it,” I said.
“I’m seventy,” she replied. “I know about sex.”
“Yeah, but it’s gay sex. Are you prepared for that?”
She giggled. “Sure! Now quit stalling and send me a copy.”
I want to be clear that my mother is supportive of me and my work. She knows how long I’ve worked to get published, what writing means to me, and she even wrote the calligraphy you see on the cover of “Red Envelope.” I wanted her involvement, and she felt honored to be involved. I just didn’t want her reading my book because.
“Oh, alright. Take your time. You don’t have to finish it. Maybe one day, it’ll be translated into Chinese by someone with better translation skills than me,” I said.
So my mother started reading her first gay romance story. She’d seen The Wedding Banquet, Lan Yu, and other movies about the experiences of gay people. She knew me, about my past relationships, and about the wonderful man I met a little over a year ago and with whom I was engaged. She knew about the gays. But that wasn’t what I was worried about.
“You are writing about me,” she texted me a week later.
I picked up the phone and called her. No way did I want to have this discussion through text, let alone her second language. By phone I could speak to her in Mandarin Chinese. “Hi, Ma. No, it’s not about you.”
“Isn’t this how I talk? Didn’t your uncle die this past year?”
“Yes and no. My stories are drawn from my experiences, but it isn’t about real people. It’s made up. I’m writing fiction.”
“I think Maggie is your cousin.”
“No, Ma, she isn’t. She’s a character in a story. And if she’s based on anybody, she’s based on my best friend from high school.”
My mother was quiet on the other end.
“Ma, you there?”
“The characters all talk like we do. Are you sure you’re not writing about us?”
This is exactly why I didn’t want her to read my book. “Yes. How far have you gotten?” Did she get to the sex yet?
“Not far, just the beginning, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. I told you, don’t worry about reading it.”
“But I want to read it. I’m proud of you!”
Yeah, hey, that’s sweet—but you know what? This is why I use a pseudonym. People will tend to see themselves in fiction (and art) because that’s what you’re supposed to do with most art these days—not only see yourself reflected, but also to see deeper into yourself. Art helps us to know ourselves in a way we couldn’t have without it.
However, if you know the author, you might assume they’re writing about you. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.
It’s hard to convince someone that their perception isn’t accurate, because it’s their perception. With something innocuous like “Red Envelope,” which my aunts now want to read, I don’t think there’ll be much trouble. Awkward silences and conversations at the next Lunar New Year gathering, maybe, but no lawsuits or tearful accusations.
But in my other line of work, there could be. And this is why I use a pseudonym. We have our reasons, from Sting’s yellow and black sweater back in the day, to Ralph Lauren wanting something more appealing to the mainstream. I use a pseudonym not because I might be ashamed of my work, which has been suggested by some friends who think of romance as “trashy” and genre writing as “hack work,” but because I know people I work with will see themselves in my writing and then, acting on that belief, will fight me about how they believe they should be depicted. I’d rather not go through those battles, legal or otherwise.
My mother, on the other hand—well, it’ll get more interesting if she ever gets to the love scene between Clint and Weaver. And if my aunts get involved, I wonder how those conversations will go. Any puns involving the words “joy” and “luck” and “club,” you can keep to yourself.
Title: Red Envelope
Author: Atom Yang
Publisher: MLR Press
Publication Date: 12/04/2015
Cover Artist: Kris Jacen
Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Fiction, Gay, Gay Fiction, Humor/Comedy, M/M Romance, New Adult, Other Holiday, Romance, Winter Holiday
The Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar, a time for family reunions,
and for saying goodbye to the past and hello to the future. Clint, however, doesn’t want to bid
farewell to what happened after last year’s celebration, when he and his Cousin Maggie’s
handsome Caucasian friend, Weaver, shared an unexpected but long-desired passionate
encounter. East is East and West is West, and Weaver seems to want to keep it that way, but
maybe Clint can bridge that great divide this coming New Year, and show Weaver what it means
to be loved and accepted.
Growing up, I lived two lives.
In one life, I watched the same programs and played the same video games as the other kids in my neighborhood. We skated, made friends, got into fights, and did most of our homework. My name was Clint, and I was named after Clint Eastwood because my maternal grandfather loved the TV show, Rawhide, cowboys, and the Wild West (despite how the Chinese were treated during that time and place) and wanted me to have a real American name. I’m grateful they didn’t pick Rowdy.
In my other life, I went to Chinese school on Sundays where my teachers called me by my Chinese name, and I got extra homework on how to be more Chinese. I had to learn to read and write in a language I rarely saw in my daily life, although I spoke and heard it every day from my parents. It was a bummer, but I suppose it made me realize how much being Chinese was about doing Chinese things, and how much being American for me was about doing twice as many things, and being who you are was about doing one thing: staying true to yourself.
Once I understood that, I didn’t live two lives anymore. I lived one.
I called up my mom to make sure I had the family recipe right for mapo tofu. It’s a spicy dish that’s usually made with ground pork, but I told her I was leaving the meat out to offer an option to my favorite aunt and host of the celebration, Shirley, who had become a vegetarian since the death of my uncle last year.
“Your mapo tofu is not vegetarian,” my mother said in Mandarin, “it has garlic in it.”
“Garlic is not slow meat that got stuck in dirt, Ma,” I replied testily in Mandarin. My generation spoke to each other in English, but to our parents and elders, we spoke Chinese.
“I’m not criticizing you, don’t be so sensitive!” my mother shot back. “I’m only telling you so you’ll know. Onions and garlic, they’re not considered vegetarian.”
Yes, I’m going to ask it, because some Chinese ways were foreign to me. “Why are they not considered vegetarian?” I said in a calmer tone. Mea culpa for snapping at my mom.
“Oh, it increases your yang,” she answered.
“Are you saying it makes you, uh, makes you want to, um…” What was the word for horny and sex in Mandarin? I never learned that vocabulary in Chinese school.
“Make love,” she said conspiratorially with a giggle. The words were translated literally from English.
“Ma, that’s silly. I’ve never noticed that when I’ve eaten garlic.”
My mother heaved a dramatic, disyllabic sigh. “Hai-ya, you think you know everything. What about Italians?”
“They’re not all wanting to…make love,” I said, feeling squeamish about using the new words with my mother. “Anyway, I hope Aunt Shirley will eat my tofu.”
My mom laughed again, a sound like wind chimes that’s tickled me as far back as I can remember. “Don’t say that! Eating someone’s tofu means you are, ah…” She searched for the English word, knowing my limitations, and quickly completed her thought in Chinese: “Touching someone’s body where you should not.”
“Really? Ha! Thanks for letting me know!”
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Weaver will be at the celebration.”
At the sound of his name, the laughter in my throat stilled and I found myself annoyed with my mother again. “Weaver is Maggie’s friend.”
“You like talking to him. Every year, since you both were little.”
“Since we were twelve. And I talk to everyone at the party, especially if they’re around my age.”
“Has it been that long? I remember you would talk about him all the way home and for weeks after. He has grown to be such a handsome man, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I mumbled. It’s not that I never noticed Weaver—his brown hair bleached by the sun, lightly toasted skin, and eventual six-foot height made him an easy game of Where’s Waldo in a crowd of my family members. I couldn’t help but notice him, and the way he had grown into his broad shoulders, big hands, and large feet that seemed so awkward when we were boys. It didn’t escape me, the way his square jaw, softer when we were both in middle school, became chiseled over time, and sometimes covered in stubble the color of burnt caramel flecked with ginger and bright gold.
She went on as if I had said nothing. “I love to look into his eyes! They’re so blue, like marbles! It’s so strange!”
My mouth went dryer than the Gobi. I tried to swallow, but failing that, I cleared my throat. “Yes, his eyes are very blue.” They reminded me of sea glass: navy in the evening, like the traditional changshan he wore to last year’s celebration; and the brilliant blue of a summer sky, which I saw on the winter morning before he left.
That morning was the first day of the Lunar New Year, and traditional belief held that the people you see on this first day would be the ones in your life for the rest of the year.
This didn’t turn out to be true.
“I thought you would be happy to know he’s coming back from China to visit. Maggie says he’s met somebody over there.”
My shoulders, which had been trying to say hello to my ears, dropped and I hunched over a little, a boxer weathering a punch. “I’m sure Maggie will be happy to see him,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Okay, I have to…do stuff. Get ready for tonight!”
“Are you upset about something?” My mother was either telepathic or she had secret cameras in my apartment, and I hoped for the latter; I glanced around suspiciously. “Mama knows when you’re unhappy,” she added in a soothing tone when I took too long to answer. When she spoke in the third person, I knew she meant business—there was both a formality and an intimacy when she talked like that; it wasn’t cute like “mommy knows best” or generic like “a mother doesn’t have to guess.” She meant, “I am your mother, you are my son, and I know you because you are a part of me, I raised you, and I want you to be happy.”
Yes, it’s kind of codependent compared to American individualism, but it’s kind of normal in a highly interdependent culture. There was something about her concern for my happiness that formed a lump in my throat, and made me wish I could hug her, tell her my hurts and cry them away on her bosom like I did when I was a child.
My throat tightened as if I had failed Darth Vader for the last time. Shit, my mother was part of my sadness. I couldn’t tell her what happened between Weaver and me after last year’s celebration because she would be upset—and for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to risk losing my relationship with her, and I didn’t think she would try to understand.
“Mama understands you,” she said.
Great, she’s telepathic. Hidden cameras would’ve been nicer. Creepy, sure, but at least my heart would be private.
I took in a controlled breath, hoping that she couldn’t hear on the other end as I ironed flat my emotions.
“I’m okay, don’t worry; a little nervous about making the dish correctly. I’ll see you later tonight.” She was quiet on the other end, and I knew my refusal to share what was bothering me hurt her feelings. And I had lied. “I love you,” I said in English.
We never expressed this to each other in Chinese, because it wasn’t something said in Chinese culture; the emotions were too strong, the words too coarse, and besides, it was assumed that parents and children loved each other. Still, my mother and I, we chose to be indelicately Western with this feeling, which meant we had to say it in our other tongue.
“I love you,” she said in singsong English. She hadn’t given up, and I knew she’d press me again later, or ask one of my relatives to get me to divulge what was bugging me before too long. “Okay, bye-bye!”
“Okay, bye-bye,” I echoed, and hung up, and stood there.
And stood some more.
Weaver was coming back.
About Atom Yang
Atom was born to Chinese immigrant parents who thought it’d be a hoot to raise him as an immigrant, too–so he grew up estranged in a familiar land, which gives him an interesting perspective. He’s named after a Japanese manga (comic book), in case you were wondering.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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