My mother once told me of how she used to watch the airplanes, flying thousands of feet above her head, that first winter she immigrated to the United States. As she watched them cut across the gray Midwestern sky, she pretended that all of them were heading to her home country of Taiwan. She pictured some faceless other passenger getting off the plane and going in her place to her family apartment in Taipei. Her mother — my wai-po — would be in the kitchen, making the entire house fragrant with her cooking. Her father — my wai-gong, now deceased — would be in the living room, talking loudly with her brothers, my uncles. Just as she had left them, she told me, waiting for her to come back.
I last saw my mother in person in December 2019, just before the entire world changed and countless families like ours were separated for more than a year. In that time, my sister became pregnant and gave birth to my niece, my parents’ first grandchild. I, in turn, became an immigrant myself, leaving the country my parents immigrated to nearly four decades ago.
I had just barely arrived in London last month when my father sent me a silly photo of my mother, joking around like they always do. They had returned from the grocery store, and my father made a comment that the 10-pound bag of rice should weigh about as much as the infant granddaughter that they still had not yet met. My mother posed, holding the rice bag as if she were holding a baby, laughing about how she needed to work up her arm strength. I tweeted the photo and the next thing we knew, my mother was on Oprah Daily’s Instagram feed. E! News reposted it. The photo was retweeted more than 1,000 times and liked more than 22,000 times.
The post struck a chord with many people who, like my family, either had not seen their loved ones for months or could not meet new family members because of the pandemic. It was a sweet snapshot of Asian pride in a moment of fear of anti-Asian hate nationwide. For me, it was my mother as I always knew her to be: playful and a little bit mischievous; the woman who made fast friends with every chef and restaurant owner wherever she ate, who would dance at your high school band concerts if she liked the music enough.
As the rest of the world met my mother as an eager new grandmother and social media darling, in moving to another country myself, I got to meet her as a 26-year-old new immigrant. I grew up hearing all her stories, but it wasn’t until I immigrated myself that I felt that I could truly understand the woman who arrived in the United States almost four decades ago.
Our experiences vastly differed. I came to London cloaked with the privilege of American citizenship — here, they call me an expat, while my mother, still learning English, would only ever be seen as an outsider. I have savings and am still earning money, all while my husband is gainfully employed — my parents arrived in their new country as poor students, sometimes living off peanut butter sandwiches for a week. Once on a video call with my mother, I told her how I was feeling disheartened to go grocery shopping in person because I kept screwing up the metric conversions. In turn, she told me about how when she arrived in the United States, she had trouble recognizing anything in the grocery store and was so thrilled to see Asian pears that she purchased five of them. “I thought $1.19 was $1.19 per pound,” she said. It was $1.19 per pear, and in 1984, when milk wasn’t even $2 a gallon, that was devastating for a poor student’s budget.
“If you make a mistake,” my mother shrugged, “you make a mistake. You can laugh about it. We couldn’t.”
But she laughs now, and when she talks about those days, I sense a longing in her that I’m not sure she can even place. She and my father worked so hard to make sure they would never be that poor again, to fight for their place in this country. They’re now American citizens, and have spent more years living in the United States than in Taiwan. I once asked my father if he dreamed in English or if he still dreamed in Taiwanese. He was surprised to realize he dreamed in English.
We have a tendency when it comes to immigrant parents to think of them in terms of ourselves, as defining characters in our stories rather than the protagonists of their own. They came to this country for us, we say. For a better life for their children, and their children’s children. We think of them in terms of their sacrifice, and what they sacrificed for us.
Nobody asks if I came to London to seek a better life for my children. I came here for my husband’s job, for the travel opportunities, for the experience of living in a new country. When my friends talk about my move, they refer to it as my great adventure. Talking to my mother now, relating to her both the struggles and the triumphs, I know that for this bold, lively woman, her immigration story was also her great adventure.
Before she was my mother, before she was my niece’s grandmother, she was a 26-year-old woman in a new country, on the cusp of a world of new experiences. In between watching airplanes and longing for home, she’d sneak into a raunchy movie with her friends, something she never would have done in Taiwan. “You have so many new things ahead of you,” she said to me over video chat recently, a touch of envy and awe in her voice.
Yet within a week of my arrival, still acclimating to my new country and missing my family more than ever, I was suddenly inundated by that image of my smiling mother and that bag of rice. Every time my phone buzzed, it was another response or retweet of my mother’s face. As she and my father prepared for the long-awaited meeting with my niece, each repost reminded me that I would not be with my family for this momentous occasion. And that was painful.
One week after the rice photo went viral, my mother and father got on an airplane and flew farther away from me, to the West Coast where my sister and niece live. Eight hours apart, I watched a video of my mother holding my niece in her arms for the first time, bouncing her and kissing her chubby cheeks, cooing her name. I watched the video on repeat, over and over again, and thought again of my mother’s airplanes from all those years ago. In her fantasy, everybody and everything is exactly the same as she left them. In my reality, everybody is changing and growing without me, leaving me behind. In this video, I watch my mother transform into a grandmother, my niece transform into a granddaughter, and I am nowhere to be seen.
After I found myself manically looking up last-minute flights to San Francisco, as if I had not just gotten out of mandatory travel quarantine, I messaged my mother to tell her that I was beginning to understand. “I can only say that there is a gap from what you know and what you really encounter,” my mother replied.
The immigrant experience is looking forward and back at the same time, having your heart in two places at once. It’s the thrill of the unfamiliar and the heartache of distance. I look at the photo of my mother with the rice bag now and realize that my wai-po never got to hold me as a baby. Airline tickets to Taiwan were too expensive for my parents then, and I didn’t get to meet my grandparents until I was 5.
I remember the desperation in my mother’s voice when she could not be with her eldest daughter during her first pregnancy because of the pandemic, when she could not be there to take care of her after she gave birth. “Did she have soup?” my mother asked, referring to her cure-all. I wonder what it must have been like for my wai-po, all those years ago, so far from her only daughter, with so much soup to give.
When I look at the photo of my mother holding that rice bag now, I see across four generations of women in my family, now across three continents. I see my wai-po, almost 36 years ago, scared but excited, sitting by the phone in the weeks before my mother gave birth for the first time on the other side of the world. I see my mother, longing to fill her arms with the granddaughter she would meet in a week. I see my nugget of a niece, so loved and so cuddly with my sister, a new mother.
No one remains the same, just as we left them, but all of us, looking to each other.
Vivian Ho is a journalist and author.