Part of my Mother's Day pampering was time to read. I stretched out in the lap of Ruby Comfort (my big red chair). The girls tucked themselves around me with their own books. Ah...
As serendipity would have it, I was reading the perfect book, Lucky Girl, by Mei-Ling Hopgood. Mother's Day is one of the occasions when I think especially of the mother on the other side of the world who made my motherhood possible. Her loss has been the great blessing of my life, yet I know nothing of her. And so I read, trying to create for myself at least the texture of her existence. I read Chinese history, fiction and memoirs. I read fairy tales and poems, websites and blogs. Rarely, though, have I read anything as enlightening as Mei-Ling Hopgood's memoir.
Mei-Ling Hopgood grew up knowing precious little about her birth parents in Taiwan. And she didn't much feel the urge to know more. "As soon as I was poured into the arms of Chris and Rollie Hopgood one April afternoon in 1974, these two midwestern teachers became my real family. They read me bedtime stories, attended my recitals, helped me build homecoming floats, and took me on vacations to Florida," she writes. Mei-Ling doted on her two younger brothers, both adopted from South Korea. She had a crush on Fonzie as a preschooler, became a pom-pom girl and rushed a sorority at the University of Missouri. She did not dwell on questions about her origins. She writes, "Some people spend their whole lives trying to uncover, understand, or escape from their pasts. Mine rose up like a dragon..."
Mei-Ling's Taiwanese birth family found her. And, at age 23, she was enthusiastically swept into an acquaintance, then intimacy with her birth mother and father, with her sisters and brother, and also with the complexities of male superiority in Chinese culture. She had grown up "feeling appropriately infuriated when I read the books and heard the sayings: No sons, no happiness. A family with daughters is only a dead end. Geese are more profitable than girls. Girls are maggots in rice.... I had every right to feel personally aggrieved by this belief, but thanks to the careful nurturing of my American parents, I
thought I had risen above the whole Chinese male superiority thing. It did not come to life for me until the day I met my sisters." One of her seven sisters has a Taiwanese nickname that means "no more girls."
It is the sisters who help translate the complicated circumstances of the family Mei-Ling left as an infant. Her father showers her with gifts but comes to disturb her more and more as time goes on; her birth mother tugs at her heart yet remains an enigma. But her sisters gather her in: "The enchantment...of sisterhood seduced me, made me stay when otherwise I might have fled." Her sisters teach her to make dumplings. They take her shopping for wedding jewelry and lingerie. They compare bra sizes and giggle over the fact that they all have the same split toenail. They lie in bed and talk in simple English late into the night. Through her sisters, through the years, Mei-Ling confronts some truly terrible truths.
She realizes she has been given a gift usually reserved for movies or fiction: the gift of exploring "what if?" She knows what her life is like. She can compare it against her sisters'. With warmth and generosity, she observes it all, braids all the strands into a new, deeper sense of self. With beautiful, clean prose, Mei-Ling Hopgood manages to evoke her experience for all of us who have reason to wonder, What if?