The bridge to my mother erodes in word-shaped chunks: broken sentences and hesitant pauses. Frustration traces the downward curve of Ma-Ma’s mouth, a bow with no arrows left to fire.
“Na ge,” she says. Brittle fingers tug at her hair, jet-black except for the wisps of white at the roots where the dye has receded. “You forget buy the… na ge…”
Her hands form shapes around the filler, a choreography in wavelengths I cannot see. I shake my head. “What, Ma-Ma? Na ge what?”
I’m tired. I just got back from the store, the haul still splayed triumphantly on the table between us: tofu and bean curd, a ten-pound bag of jasmine rice, duck eggs, bags and bags of leafy green vegetables that I had to take pictures of and use Google Translate to identify. A whole fish stares at me with glassy eyes of betrayal beneath a thin layer of white paper. The man behind the counter had brought the mallet down over and over onto the wriggling body, thump thump thump in time with my heart.
The Chinese market is an hour from here. Folks wrinkle their noses when they hear the name, talk about how it smells funny (it doesn’t) and the fish tanks are unsanitary (they are) and only those people would ever think of shopping there.
I don’t want to go back.
“Cha.” Ma-Ma frowns, forms her teeth and lips carefully around the word. “I want the cha. The… tea. Tea!”
I glance at the old, chipped mug on the counter, stained dark around the rim in vague lip shapes. There are Chinese characters stamped on its side, some old-fashioned logo from a restaurant we went to the grand opening for when I was little. I can’t read it. Ma-Ma rarely washes the mug, just refills and resteeps over and over from the hot water jug on the counter. Ba-Ba used to do it, but now it’s just her.
That’s right. Tea.
“A li shan?” Ma-Ma’s eyes shine with hope and a hint of a smile. “Please, you buy the a li shan tea?”
A li shan. I can’t write it. I can’t read it. The tins and tins of tea in the cupboard, the ones my mother won’t touch, have labels like Black Cherry Oasis and Chamomile Peach.
The bridge between us teeters, fragile.
My purse sags with the weight of a book with a colorful cover. Its pages are too thick, its text too large, yet together they hold the gravity of fear, a single desperate nail to save a crumbling bridge. The disease eats at my mother’s brain, caterpillar-slow, mouthful by mouthful swallowing her memories and the words that accompany them. Those words used to embarrass me, how they left Ma-Ma’s mouth mutated and warped, birth defects from the pregnancy of immigration. To make up for them I made my own words perfect, English sharpened into a butterfly knife to dazzle those who would look at my skin and sneer, beautiful movements of articulation to distract and deceive because I’m not like them, I’m not one of those people.
But now I don’t know what a li shan means.
We stand now, my mother and me, on opposite banks. She goes to friends’ houses to drink tea and play mahjong, makes food that sizzles and floods the house with spice, tells me things like Lotus root make your woman time better. I buy organic, spend hours at work before screens of horizontal text, and joke with friends about chopsticks and Chinglish, how much we like boba and the green tea we buy from boutique shops at the mall. The bridge between us wobbles on an uncertain base, the shifting sands every day receding, corroding, one grain of English at a time.
One day it will collapse. One day my mother will speak and I will hear, but only silence will settle. We will stand on our banks and stare at each other, speakers of two different languages, inhabitants of two different worlds. Blood and love will not be enough.
“Please?” Ma-Ma’s round fingertips touch the edge of the table, both worn smooth by decades of use. “A li shan? Go buy the a li shan?”
I swallow, think of the book in my purse: Chinese-English Dictionary for Beginners.
“Okay,” I whisper, and grope for my keys.
Kai Hudson is a clinical psychologist living in California.