Double Blossom xx – Week 2
December 1964. This is a 3 year old me with my parents. My brother, the first of my 3 siblings, has just been born in September. He was most likely asleep when this photo was being taken and I suspect that I was quite pleased about his non-appearance.
Here we are, the perfect embodiment of the American Dream. Look a little closer and you can see that the tree like a dream is not all that it seems. The large ratio of tinsel to baubles conjures the hastily decorated trees of offices and shops; those trees that say Christmas in one line. This is not a tree that holds a history of decorations handed down through the generations. My parents are just beginning to build their own inventory. The paper angels and stars we make at school, mixed in with the decorations my mother will buy every January in the sales, are yet to come.
I have come to realise that behind every American Dream hovers a pervasive anxiety about making a new and better life, coupled with a low level, continual sadness about what was left behind and what might have been. And my parents’ American dream was no different.
Their marriage was ill fated and unhappy. Sometimes I wonder if the only thing they had in common was that they were Chinese immigrants in America who happened to meet. They certainly did not share any interests and their temperaments could not have been more different. They both had needs of which they were unaware; emotional shortcomings borne of their war seeped childhoods. They didn’t know how to ask, nor did they know how to give each other what the other needed. In this photo, the seams were already coming apart and my siblings and I will be the glue that holds them together until my father dies 47 years later.
My dad, fresh from his stint at the Army Reserve, sports a newly shorn head. Till the day he dies, he will forever wear his hair like this because of its convenience. A mathematician turned actuary, his view of the world was binary for the most part. The pen in his pocket could have been placed there as a prop.
Sitting beside him, my mom looks chic and elegant, wearing a velvet shirt with a tie that she has folded over once with her pragmatic nonchalance. Matched up with a crisp white shirt; so simple and timeless. They had no money then and she didn’t sew. I’m dying to know how this shirt came into her wardrobe but she can’t remember. She can only remember that the dress I am wearing is a hand me down. The world of academia had no place for my mom’s unique lateral and creative intelligence. And she had no one to show her how to make it work for her. Many shades of grays filtered through her life.
She did not value his logical brain because it was riddled with an inevitable hypocrisy when he got caught up in his own rules. His many infidelities were her proof. He did not value her intuition; he couldn’t put a measure on it. Her impulsive actions exasperated him because he interpreted it as a lack of discipline. And yet, she was the faithful one.
When my mother was a teen in Taiwan, her American dream was what she knew from Doris Day movies; white picket fences and happy homes. This was how she thought she would escape her trauma-filled childhood. What she didn’t realise is that the only way of ridding trauma is to acknowledge it. Otherwise, it stays with you wherever you go; something I am only beginning to realise now. But more on that later.
With love, Christine
The above post is part of Double Blossom xx, an Instagram project I started with photographer Christina Wilson Elms during lockdown. Each week we post a photo of ourselves and write a letter to the other on an agreed theme. If you are interested in reading our stories, you can find us on Instagram at Double Blossom xx — Two London sistas share stories about being Chinese in the UK and the US. Same age, same name; almost.