Chinese Tiger Versus Dragon
This afternoon I took Pippi out to her favorite Chinese restaurant for Chinese New Year. We both enjoy Chinese food and I wanted to celebrate with her on one of her rare days off. Even with her three-year-old twins in tow, I knew it would be a special mother -daughter luncheon.
I was hoping it would be like the old days.
Our family used to live next to Chinatown (Jose and I laugh, wondering how we raised five kids in that large house in such a questionable area). She was our baby, and our only girl. When all the boys were in school, I’d sometimes take Pippi shopping and then out to eat at an authentic restaurant in Chinatown. Because of our frequent trips, she learned how to eat with chopsticks at an early age. Her favorite thing was showing off to her father and brothers, who still preferred forks.
“Did you and Mommy eat in Chinatown again?” Jose would ask her as she dexterously picked up rice from a bowl with her bamboo sticks.
“Yes!” Her cheeks were apples and glowed with delight. I’d wink at her, secretly. In our large family our lunch dates were times of bonding.
“Why does she always get to go with you?” Roberto, her youngest brother, asked one night. He didn’t have the same memories of chopsticks and Chinatown.
“Because I’m the Chinese one!” she answered, sincerely.
Our dinner table erupted with laughter. The boys always teased their sister, saying that Pippi looked Chinese. She had slanted, almond shaped eyes – a trait that many Mexican babies have. As she grew, those eyes became her trademark - framed with long lashes. Everywhere we went, Pippi was admired. I wasn’t ready for adolescence to come so quickly. When it did, my daughter was body-snatched in the middle of the night and replaced with someone who wanted to fight about everything.
She never wanted to eat what I made for dinner; never wanted to sleep or study. She suddenly wasn’t affectionate; she thought I pushed her too hard.
In high school she was an honor student and was in band, playing the flute. One day after school I made the mistake of suggesting she branch out into different areas. The remark brought a tearful eruption.
“I’ll never be good enough for you,” she screamed.
“Why do you say that? Such drama! All I’m saying is…”
“I do my best and my best isn’t good enough for you.”
“You will always be good enough for me!” Before I could elaborate, she was running down the hall and then slamming her door.
What happened to my daughter? Would I never see the apple cheeked girl again? The one who loved me and knew I loved her?
Today we had lunch together and our conversation was like the careful, polite exchanges of two people who have only just met each other. We have learned to be civil with each other so we don’t fight.
“That was good,” I say, as we finish.
“Grandma,” Jacob asks me, looking at the ceiling. “What is your favorite thing here?”
“Besides you two?” I joke, looking between him and Josh. “I think it is….”
“Grandma’s favorite is the eggroll, always.” Pippa smiles, answering for me. The boys agree that it’s their favorite, too. I don’t have the heart to tell them that their Mom is wrong. My favorite is the noodles without dressing. It is a traditional Chinese favorite that Pippi and I have ordered for years.
“Mommy, can we play in the kids area now?” Josh asks his mother. Jacob waits closely behind him for her answer.
“Thank you!” They sing in unison and run toward the slides and swings that flank the restaurant.
“Thanks for lunch, Mom,” Pippa yawns. I know it’s been a busy week for her. She and her husband, Greg, have just landed a big account in their business and they’ve both been working a lot of hours.
“When are you going to slow down?”
My daughter rolls her eyes. “Don’t start, Mom.”
“You have twin boys, you know.”
“Really, do I? Because I forgot!”
I let it drop and there’s a bit of silence as she reaches in her purse for her phone. After checking her messages our waitress comes over and picks up the check.
“You want to take with you?” She points at the last egg roll, a juicy temptation left between us.
“Not for me,” I say, raising my eyebrows at Pippi. She shakes her head and the waitress smiles and walks off with the leather check-holder with the cash inside. I forget to tell her to keep the change, but it’s too late – she quickly disappears.
“The last eggroll,” Pippi smiles as she texts. “You know you’ve been on a diet as long as I can remember? Why don’t you live a little?”
The remark stings and she can tell.
“Really?” she says. “That offends you? Admit it, you’re always on a diet.”
“I guess,” I start to feel her claws against my neck. I feel trapped as she advances toward me and she knows I feel this way.
“Why can’t I say anything to you anymore?”
“No, I can’t.” She finishes her text and puts her phone down on the table. I can see in her beautiful face that she feels misunderstood. I remember a younger version of the same face smiling broadly at me, wearing pig tails and picking up wooden chopsticks.
“Pippi, let’s not fight…”
“You know, every time I’m with you I feel like a child! You’re the only one who still calls me Pippi! The rest of my friends call me Penelope! My real name!”
There is silence between us again, other than an exasperated sigh that leaves her. How did we become so distant? How can a Mother and Daughter who love each other ever feel isolated and alone in their relationship? I want to ask her, but I don’t know how.
“You want me to call you Penelope?”
“Alright, I will.”
“I’ve heard that before…”
I can feel tears start to well up in me, then decide it’s time to leave. “Well, do you want some help getting the boys together? I can load one of them in their car seats…”
“No, they’re having fun. Can we just sit here and have some tea?”
I nervously agree. “Alright, I guess.” I want to add: “BUT let’s not start picking each other apart, okay?” but I don’t.
The waitress returns with our change and I tell her to keep it.
“Thank you,” she smiles and bows graciously.
“But we’d like to order some tea.”
“Actually,” Pippi interjects. “Tea comes with the meal, right? Can we just have a pot of tea now?”
“Yes, yes,” the waitress says, still smiling. “Yes, it comes with the meal. Oolong tea or Jasmine tea?”
As I say Oolong, Pippi says Jasmine. We look at each other and smile, then defer to the others’ wishes.
“Why I not bring you green tea?” the waitress laughs. “Green tea is fresh leaf and a little bit more but I won’t charge you.”
I look at my daughter who smiles and nods at her. As our waitress disappears again, I think of what Pippi has just said. Do I really treat her like a child? Do I really not listen? Do I make her feel self-conscious like she can’t talk to me?
In the ten years she has been away from home, she has become a woman. She is a mother and a wife and a business owner. I wanted her to stay my little girl. In very many ways she’ll always be my little girl.
“What are you thinking?” she asks me, suspiciously.
“What is it?”
“Do you really think I don’t listen to you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Pippi laughs, as if this is an understatement.
“Don’t be sorry,” she says. “Just listen to me when I say something.”
Her attitude is disrespectful and I have to swallow hard to accept her words because of it. I wonder in many ways where I went wrong in raising her.
“Here, your tea!” The waitress lays clean placemats before us and then white cups with no handles. In the middle of the table she places a pot of green tea. Pippi lifts the lid and determines it needs to sit awhile.
“I’m just gonna check on the boys,” she says, leaving her seat. I sigh, looking down at my placemat. It is a paper Chinese Zodiac calendar that gives an image of each animal, what year it corresponds to, and a brief description of people born under the sign.
According to the chart, I am a tiger: A creative individual who is optimistic, resilient, and influential. It also says I am sensitive and prone to getting my feeling hurt too easily. Am I? I wonder…
I quickly scan the chart to find Pippi – a dragon. It reads: “Proud, strong, and self-assured, Dragons don’t have to ask for things, they demand them. They can be dictatorial and inflexible in their associations with others, but at the same time be the warmest, most gentle individuals you may meet.” I smile and look around for Pippi (Penelope) just to show her how closely the description is of her.
I see her walking toward me, Joshua following her closely behind. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m going to have to take a rain check on the tea, Josh wet his pants.” I can tell she frustrated and I start looking around for Jacob, who comes into the room in tears.
“Why do we have to go?” he is crying. “Josh wet his pants, not me!” His sobs are echoing and his mother tries to calm him. Josh, on the other hand, is ready to leave.
“Bye, Grandma,” he says, almost too quickly.
“Is there anything I can do?” I ask Pippi.
I pick up the placemat and follow her as she marches out to the parking lot.
“Pip… Penelope, I was just looking at this placemat. This is Chinese New Year, after all, and I was looking at these descriptions…” I start to tell her my amusement at the description of the Dragon, but she spins around and faces me.
“Really, Mom? Really? What about all that stuff you used to believe. Do you still believe it? Remember when you used to ask the waitresses not to set our table with those placemats to us because you didn’t want me being deceived by the Chinese Zodiac? Remember that shit?”
Her voice is agitated and drowned only by Jacob crying that he doesn’t want to leave. I instantly recognize my insensitivity.
“Sorry, babe, I was just trying to lighten the mood, I guess.”
“Yeah, well…. I can’t understand you, sometimes. I mean, sometimes I wonder why you used to be so… ”
She looks like a harried mother as she loads her crying boys into their carseats.
She gives me a hug and I blow the boys a kiss goodbye. In the parking lot, I feel filled with disappointment as I wave toward her Rav4 speeding away.
I return home and sit at my computer, editing a piece for the Sun-Times that is due in eight hours. Instead of giving it my full attention, my mind keeps returning to the lunch and my daughter - an unknowable entity in my life right now. I decide to draft an email to her, resolving to ask Jose to read it later.
I can’t stop thinking of you.
You are my daughter, the beautiful blessing that God decided to give to me. Today as we left the restaurant, I wanted to grab you and hold you and scream “I love you! Can you receive my love?” But instead, I chickened out and just waved to you like you were any other person I have in my life.
But you’re not.
You’re not like any other person I have in my life. You are the one who is so close to me that you can hear me purr or growl before the rest of the world does. You can see right through me and for all the years we have struggled, we have also understood each other.
I thought it would be fun to go out on Chinese New Year for the same reason I thought it would be fun to read you what the placemats said about the tiger (me) and the dragon (you). I don’t put much belief in that stuff, as you inferred earlier, but I thought it brought comic relief to all of the tension we were having at lunch.
The truth is, every mother and daughter does the dance that we do. We trade places in frustration, belief, hope and anger. We sometimes believe (falsely) that we don’t understand one another. We think we can’t see the other, but the truth is we do. I should say that I seek to understand you; I seek to know you; I seek to love and be loved by you.
Isn’t that better than thinking we already know each other?
I love you and I’m proud of you.
Instead of saving it to a draft, I hit “send.”
Part of me is nervous, but I’m believing that she will read it at a time when she can hear what I’m really saying.
Even with my twin grandsons snapping at her heels.