A Mother’s Tale

My wife was sick. She’d picked up something on our trip to central China. She lay listless in a king-sized bed in her parents’ Beijing apartment. Her head ached. But most of all, her stomach hurt.

Still, she was lucky; she was home. There was an expert, dutiful caregiver there to attend to her every need, ply her with ancient remedies, stroke her body, literally will her back to good health.


I had a front row seat to the miracles performed by the traditional Chinese mother, proving yet again why they hold center-stage in this culture’s tight family circle.

I was also taken back to a time when my wife was a teenager living in this very apartment. Suddenly, she was a kid again. She lay under the covers, ailing and grumpy, making croaky little utterances to her mother’s probing questions.

Mama was a whirlwind of activity.

For hours, she hurried back and forth from the galley kitchen, offering centuries-tested medicinal remedies. When one was done, she moved on to the next. There were wholistic pills, cups of hot water and other potions administered with a straw so the precious little patient didn’t have to lift her head.

Mama sat by her side for a series of extended massages that included a Chinese “fire jar” treatment, a form of Eastern Medicine that dates back to feudal times — a type of deep tissue massage where hot cups are placed on the back to create suction and increase circulation.

Using her hands, one on top of the other, Mama rubbed her daughter’s stomach with 400 circular strokes — 200 clockwise, the other 200 counterclockwise. Then she rubbed her temples to quell her headache.

There was also a “gua sha” application that involved stroking an ox bone over an area on my wife’s arm that had been lubricated with massage oil — yet another Middle Kingdom EMT technique to jump-start one’s circulation. She finally did the “ai jiu” procedure, known as “moxibustion” in the west, in which she burned some dried mugwort leaves on my wife’s stomach.

Finally, there was a bit of Western technology: Mama produced an electronic thermometer she’d bought online from Germany to take the patient’s temperature. When the device beeped and the results read out, Mama looked on with eyebrows-furrowed, like an emergency room doctor reading a critical cat-scan.

Nearly 100 degrees. Not good.

So, Mama headed back into her kitchen laboratory to devise the next round of imaginative treatment. She was so thorough, so attentive, it almost made me want to get sick.

When I mentioned the quality of care my wife was receiving, I heard a tiny voice from deep within the covers.

“Xin ku le.” She works too hard.

I remember the first time I met Mama. I had just begun dating her daughter and we all went out for dinner at some Chinese place in the Monterey Park area of Los Angeles.

With my wife translating, I told her mother that she had a very beautiful daughter. Mama didn’t look at me. She didn’t smile.

Instead, she glared across the table at her daughter and scolded: “You need to be more-humble.”

But she had figured me out. She knew I had a “sweet tongue.”

Not always so sweet. I have this annoying habit of teasing the people I love most, and Mama did not avoid my gentle taunts. I’m a man without boundaries, a fact that annoys my wife to no end.

I would tell my wife her mother quacked like a little duck when she talked. I’d call her “hu li hu du,” or dizzy, until my wife told me to put a lid on it, assuring me that her mother was smarter and more-streetwise than I could ever hope to be.

But that didn’t stop me: When we lived in LA, my in-laws helped paint our kitchen. I noticed a small spot Mama had missed. For the longest time, I joked that she had a glass eye.

“Kulian,” I’d tell her. Poor thing.

When we took bike rides along the Santa Monica boardwalk, I’d ride beside her and obnoxiously call out, “Kuai le, Mama!” Hurry!

I know my place here. As a male, my brother-in-law rules the roost, a tradition in any Chinese family. One day, I told him I’d had a long conversation with his mother the night before (which is ludicrous on its face, since I have no long conversations with anyone in Mandarin.)

When I said Mama had agreed that I should take his place as the number-one son in the family, he scoffed.

“My mother may seem dizzy,” he said. “But she’s not that dizzy!”

Mama’s a stylish woman who prefers wearing scarves and form-fitting clothes and can fit into the same outfits as both her daughters.

When I walked with her on the street, I’d slowly lag back a few feet, pound on some street sign with my fist, and then double over, holding my head, like I painfully smacked my forehead with concussion force.

Every time, Mama would rush to my side in parental concern, only to give a gentle laugh and punch my arm when I stood and smiled, realizing she’d been had again.

And that laugh! Her eyes narrow and she covers her mouth, the way all Chinese women do to avoid exposing their teeth.

Mama gets me. She understands my childlike Chinese. We can sit in a room together without speaking and still feel comfortable. She often travels with us in China and keeps pace and then some.

She’s patient with me as well. One night, I tried to open a bottle of red wine, despite its old and brittle cork. Bits of cork exploded all over the table, as my father-in-law looked on. He told me I was placing the opener on the side, and not the middle, of the cork.

On the third try, the cork popped inside the bottle as my wife’s father walked away in disgust. He later told his daughter that my wine-opening skills were “rather low.”

I poured a glass and was resigned to guzzle it down, bits of cork and all. But Mama came to the rescue. She strained the wine in a piece of fabric and — voila! — no more cork.

I toasted her ingenuity, and patience, several times that night.

Mama calls her daughter several times a week when she’s back home in San Francisco. And I smile with I hear her croaky little voice.

There’s just something about her gentle, reassuring presence.

Mama hosted my parents when they came to China in 2001. Now my own dear, sassy, say-anything mother has been gone for ten years. I miss her every day, but I have been granted the gift of another mother’s love, this one unlikely, from the other side of the world.

Here in Beijing, I see the way Mama cares for her husband, who has grown hard of hearing. And I see a lot of her in the way my wife treats me, always there with advice, always knowing the right thing to do.

Attending her daughter’s sick bed that night, she repeatedly urged her to eat, offered her an electric blanket, promised that the next day she would give her legs a “gua sha” treatment. And she worried about what to serve for the next morning’s breakfast.

After my wife finally fell asleep, Mama and I watched her favorite soap opera about the travails of Chinese parents dealing with their more-modern children. Her husband, a retired military officer, makes fun of her for watching such drivel. He prefers history and hard news.

But Mama is transfixed by her show. At one point, when a young suitor slipped an engagement ring on his fiancé’s finger, I asked Mama if she ever received such a ring.

She waved off the question. Of course, she has one, but she rarely wears it; because it gets in the way of her kitchen duties.

I reminded her that her own daughter didn’t wear a wedding ring either, but for a different reason: When I’d asked, she merely dismissed me, saying I couldn’t afford the one she wanted.

At one point during her ministrations on her daughter, I told Mama that I was sorry that she’d been saddled with a (misdemeanor-grade) mean-spirited white devil of a son-in-law.

She laughed her little laugh and waved me off: She said she bragged about me to her friends. She knew family was important to me and saw how much I loved her daughter.

Besides, in Chinese culture — and this was probably the biggest compliment of all — I wasn’t a finicky eater and ate with relish each and every dish she cooked.

Mama had once wanted to open her own restaurant and is rightly proud of her kitchen skills. At many places, she still tastes dishes only to announce: “I can make this.”

As I write this, she just served three of my favorite dishes: cumin lamb, radishes-in vinegar and pork-and-sour-cabbage pot stickers.

But now it’s time to go. Suddenly, I have a headache and need to hit the bed — for a healthy dose of Mama’s tender loving care.

Former Big City Journalist turned Sojourner