Synopses & Reviews
Chicken Bones and Mother's Milk
My memory begins with the taste of chicken blood. Coaxed from the two-bone middle section of the wing, the crack of bone splintering between my teeth, the clotted marrow heavy on my tongue -- the memory of sweetness began before language, desire born before knowledge of the words to describe it.
Until I was five, I lived in a tenement house near the Hong Kong airport, on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour. Our building was a narrow eight-story walkup, a tired-looking column streaked dark with humidity and soot, faceless, unadorned, indistinguishable from any other building in the project. Inside, the walls were concrete, the stairways dimly lit, the landings littered with residents pausing to rest on their climb to the upper floors. Passing neighbors' hellos, their whines, complaints, and words of encouragement, were obscured by the roar of airplane engines vibrating through porous cinderblock.
My parents and I lived on the fourth floor -- a stroke of luck, according to my mother, who recognized good fortune in any guise. She didn't mind that we shared a five-room flat with four other families; that our central hall stunk of salted fish and dayold rice; that water only ran three times a week. For her, it wasenough that we could make it home without once resting on the stairs. Home, with breath to spare what more could we ask?
My father was different. He didn't talk about luck, preferring instead to rely on his own wits. He'd discovered our flat the old Cantonese way -- through long afternoons grumbling in tea shops with his cronies, slipping housing inquiries in between puffs on his cigarette, in between the obligatory complaints about thegovernment and Hong Kong's outrageous cost of living. He'd waited through the useless replies: the long-winded formulas for improving the economy; the canny, ever-changing predictions about Hong Kong's future; the wistful, oft-repeated plans to leave Kowloon's projects for untold riches in America. He'd listened to old men describe their latest ailments. He'd commiserated with the young ones who cursed their bosses. He'd nodded and sighed, swirling the tea at the bottom of his cup. And finally, after weeks of tea and cigarettes, he'd heard about the flat on Ying Yang Street, near the Hong Kong airport.
Four rooms each measuring ten feet by ten, a smaller fifth room, every room opening onto a central hallway. A toilet at the end of the hall, shielded by a sackcloth sheet. Enough floor space to cook in the entryway. Overall, the apartment totaled less than six hundred square feet-but the number was irrelevant: Who could afford an entire flat? One family, one room -- that was the way we lived in Hong Kong.
My parents, newly married, chose one of the larger rooms, away from the stench of the hall toilet. They furnished it with a sturdy metal bunk bed, a chest of drawers, folding chairs, and a collapsible table. They filled the bureau's drawers with thin cotton undershirts, flannel pajamas, my mother's nylon stockings, my father's brown knit socks. On the bed's top bunk they stacked ricebowls and chopsticks, cases of noodles, sacks of rice, glass jars heavy with dried herbs and bark. Then, amid the foodstuffs' delicious wild scent, my parents lay, squeezed together on the bed's lower berth, blessing the room with their desire for a family.
Afterwards, duty-bound, my father set out forthe tea shops again, spreading the news about rooms for rent.
My father was a carpenter who worked on a construction crew, building the skeletons of offices and apartments high into the sky. It was not a profession that he'd chosen, but one that had found him. In his youth, my father had been clever with his hands -- he could weave birdcages out of twigs, repair any piece of broken furniture, create toys from scrap cloth. His hands were quick and gentle, able to capture baby birds without squeezing the breath from their lungs. They were hands that loved the feel of warm earth, hands that coaxed vegetables to spring from the sandy ground. As a boy of six or seven, my father had dreamed of the things he could do with these hands: He'd imagined becoming a farmer, a sculptor, an inventor. He'd imagined a future shaped by his own hands.
But the force of history had intervened. My father, Mar Yat Shing, was born to a peasant family in the Toishan region of China in 1930, two years into the military dictatorship of Chiang Kaishek, one year before Japan seized Manchuria, presaging the invasion that was soon to come. These events -- and their repercussions -- came to shape my father's life more profoundly than any childhood games, his parents' stories, or the strength of his hands.
By the time Father was seven, China was at war with Japan. My understanding of this war comes primarily from textbooks -- from them I know about the bombings, the forced-labor camps, the widespread famine. From these same books, I learned about the years that followed -- the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and Mao Tse-tung's Communists, Mao's ascension to power, the decades of violenceafterwards. I'm a good student. I've read a lot. But I still don't understand what my father lived through.
In truth, I know very little bout the early part of my father's life -- he prefers not to talk about those years, and I'm required to respect his silence. Ours is a culture that expects the young to revere elders, women to revere men. Forever his child, forever female, I am not allowed to ask any questions. I am not supposed to know about my father's weaknesses.
When she was five years old, M. Elaine Mar and her mother emigrated from Hong Kong to Denver to join her father in a community more Chinese than American, more hungry than hopeful.
While working with her family in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and living in the basement of her aunt's house, Mar quickly masters English and begins to excel in school. But as her home and school life--Chinese tradition and American independence--become two increasingly disparate worlds, Mar tries desperately to navigate between them.
Adolescence and the awakening of her sexuality leave Elaine isolated and confused. She yearns for storebought clothes and falls for a red-haired boy who leads her away from the fretful eyes of her family. In his presence, Elaine is overcome by the strength of her desire--blocking out her family's visions of an arranged marriage in Hong Kong.
From surviving racist harassment in the schooIyard to trying to flip her straight hair like Farrah Fawcett, from hiding her parents' heritage to arriving alone at Harvard University, Mar's story is at once an unforgettable personal journey and an unflinching, brutal look at the realities of the American Dream.
With gritty, intimate detail, M. Elaine Mar takes us into the back rooms of a Chinese restaurant and the upper floors of an immigrants' social club, places whose addresses say "Denver" but whose interiors speak of another country. By revealing this little-seen, insular pocket of America, Mar debunks the notion of a classless, integrated society. Her portrait of childhood inside a struggling ethnic enclave challenges the stereotype of Asian Americans as a "model minority" highlighting instead the barriers to success that exist in every American ghetto, from Chinatown to Harlem to Appalachia. In her unforgettable journey from enduring racial harassment on the playground to graduating from Harvard, Mar tackles the larger issues of class and ethnicity with wit and intelligence.
About the Author
M. Elaine Mar graduated from Harvard University in 1988. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.