We Carry Smoke and Paper

by Melody S. Gee

A week after my oldest daughter was born, I asked my mom if she wanted to come out for the baby’s one-month celebration. Having only heard about this ceremony, since I neither had one myself nor ever attended one, I asked her, “You know that red egg party for babies? Do you want to do that?” My mom agreed and she and my dad traveled from LA to St. Louis.

My daughter was one month and three days old. She was covered in baby acne, still learning to nurse, and sleeping in forty-five-minute stretches. My mom arrived at my home armed with a printout of a website’s directions on how to conduct a Chinese red egg ceremony. It was written in English. I wondered if she had called her sister, Auntie May, who was eighteen years older and grandmother of twelve. Auntie May was who we called for traditional recipes or instructions on how to set out ancestor offerings correctly on our mantle, who loaded our car with fuzzy melons only she could grow to taste like their childhood.

Three or four times a year we would drive from our home in LA to see my mom’s family in the South Land Park neighborhood of Sacramento. There, my mom savored foods I had never seen, suddenly able to braise and season exotic leafy greens and neck bones. My mom grew very young when we visited her mother, sister, and brothers. The youngest of five, she returned to that role around her family—serving, deferring, asking permission. They alternately lavished attention and ignored her. Her Cantonese softened within a few hours of being among her siblings, dropping the harsher tones and higher volume of my dad’s more guttural family dialect. In Sacramento, my mom relaxed into her siblings’ rhythms and expectations and traditions, seeming more herself than anywhere else. She seemed lighter and less worried about me. She seemed to be carrying less.

My daughter’s red egg party lasted approximately three minutes. My husband’s family drove in from Illinois and the twelve of them and my parents squeezed into our brick bungalow, where I had carefully hung a four-foot silk embroidery scene of a hundred white cranes, the same one all my relatives and every Chinese kid from school displayed in their homes too. This, like the red tasseled door charms and the smooth zodiac animal carvings and the jade in my jewelry box, was my small invitation to the Chinese part of myself I didn’t always acknowledge. The culture of my childhood home was more immigrant than anything else, one that scraped the past like peeling paint, like sun-scorched stucco.

The morning of the party my mom boiled and dyed three dozen eggs with an Easter kit she had brought, then piled the crimson mound into a mixing bowl she rummaged out of my pantry. With the entire family crammed around our dining room table, I brought out the baby, dressed in a red silk jumpsuit that hung beyond her skinny newborn body, complete with impossible frog buttons and drool stains. The soft matching cap, thickly bordered with gold, looked like a rice bowl over my daughter’s inky hair. She wailed the whole time, probably overtired, overstimulated, half-filled with my disappearing milk and overflowing anxiety. When the moment came, I held out my daughter. My mom took one red egg and drew it across the tiny forehead, around the blistered cheeks, over the trembling red mouth. She barely touched the baby’s skin—it was more like passing a blacklight or metal detector over her. As she did, my mom chanted, leng leng. After several passes, my mom returned the egg to the bowl. I hoisted my whimpering daughter onto my shoulder and the room broke into uncertain applause. The ceremony’s only words were pretty, pretty.


I knew nothing of celebrating rites or performing rituals. I married without performing a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. I learned later that all of Auntie May’s children and grandchildren had prepared and served a perfect cup of tea for their parents and in-laws, a promise lifelong filial piety. Wanting the red egg ceremony was partly my desire to know what I should be doing at these life milestones, but I also hoped it might reveal some secret about my mom—about her culture, her superstitions, her need to ensure our protection. Throughout my childhood, we followed old village customs about cleaning the house and venerating ancestors at the lunar new year. We left our porch light on all night, either to invite or repel spirits. I wasn’t allowed to bathe on either the lunar or Gregorian new year. We weren’t allowed to say or think bad thoughts, take the broom out of the closet, refuse to eat good luck food, or wear a sour expression. We lit incense, lined the altar with tangerines, and put away our shoes. I carried none of these practices into my own home to share or re-enact with my husband or children.

I had expected my mom to know how to conduct a red egg ceremony for her first grandchild. That she would have picked it up somewhere between fleeing China in 1958 and languishing in Hong Kong until 1965, between arriving in the US with barely a high school education, between cannery work and moving from Sacramento to LA to cook for her new father-in-law’s take-out restaurant in 1968. With a red egg party, as with all our silent Chinese observances, I wanted to believe that I was participating in something connected to a place that, however far away, was real and hers. That our mysterious behaviors meant something somewhere. So, when my mom sheepishly referenced her printed instructions and an unsuccessful attempt to get Auntie May to explain the red egg ceremony procedures, I was incredulous at her disconnect. I couldn’t square her insistence on some rituals and her ignorance of others. When I realized the ceremony that everyone had traveled for was over with the swipe of an egg, I felt mostly embarrassed that I had talked it up to my in-laws. I had wanted to put on a good show for them. I had wanted to enjoy a good show myself.

My mom has always held the standard of what it means to be Chinese. She was the one who made us store gravesite offerings outside, lest we allow the dead into our home. She was the one who commanded we eat chicken for luck and long noodles for long lives on every birthday or anniversary. She draped me in gold and jade for protection and forbade me from wearing black clothing or white hair bands. We didn’t share many holidays with relatives so all these customs, dragged across the ocean when she was twelve years old, were hers alone to remember and carry. My mom practiced these good luck and bad luck rituals as if doing them right meant something fragile would hold just a little longer. All I ever wondered was why no other Chinese kids I knew were subject to these practices, why they seemed to exist only in our house.

Lately, on every visit to my home, my mom lugs a bag of old jewelry to give me, to ensure all the pieces will survive her. Since their retirement, my parents have been slowly leaving their valuables with me, like a river depositing grains onto its delta.


My mom is Chinese until she is not. She must do figures in her head in Cantonese, she must eat rice with every meal, play weekly mahjong, fearfully appease ancestors, and call my husband American, but never herself and never me. Until she visits China and is told that her clothes and hair and speech and posture are all foreign. Until she is interviewed by an adoption agency and must, against all of her Chinese sensibilities, express her longing for a child. Until she plays matchmaker between her niece in Guangdong and a widowed friend in Orange County, only to be stained with the bad luck of their unhappy match. Until her mother dies and her daughter moves away, and no one remains to exchange or obey or observe. Without anyone to share the burden of culture, my mom puts her arms out and lays down what she has been carrying on her own all this time. It is shapeless as smoke. A signal, a residue, a byproduct of something elemental and devouring.  


When her mother died, my mom walked around her Sacramento neighborhood looking for the oldest Chinese ladies who might remember what Chinese people do when someone dies. I flew in from graduate school in Albuquerque and felt pulled through the funeral weekend like a car on the track of a carwash.

My grandmother’s funeral was a pastiche of things ancient, borrowed, and invented. My uncle set up a card table in front of his living room fireplace, over which a thick mantle had long served as their ancestor worship site. The card table held a black and white photograph of my grandmother, her face a near perfect match for my mom’s face, her hair cropped at her ears, her thin nylon shirt high-collared and gently floral. At the repast, I took my plate of glassy noodles and steamed chicken to the only seat available, at the card table with the photograph. Swiftly, my cousin picked up my plate and guided me by the arm away from the table. She moved me gently and silently to the couch, without acknowledging what I eventually figured out was my faux pas. I looked back, mortified that I had plopped my lunch down at my dead grandmother’s make-shift altar, but also wondering why a matching folding chair had been set beside it. I wished for a museum sign to orient and educate me.

My grandmother’s funeral rituals also included tying black strips of cloth around our forearms, threads of the ripped material dangling as long as the ties themselves. We lined up in descending order of age before exiting my uncle’s house to process to the gravesite. Someone, again silently, guided us to our places and filed us out. Right before my grandmother’s casket was lowered into the ground, a few elders stood and turned their backs to the burial. The rest of us quickly did the same. There was no program, just leaders and followers. When I was a new Catholic, I moved through Mass this way, taking my cues from others, startled out of my thoughts and always half a step behind. Only after six years of attending have I finally managed to memorize most of the Mass. Had I years to attend Chinese funerals, maybe I would grow into them the same way.


Those elders. Perhaps they had arrived in the swell of immigration after 1965, which would have made them middle aged when they started new lives. Perhaps they had somehow pressed into California during the 1930s like my own paternal grandfather when he was a twelve-year-old paper son of a stranger. They would have forced their way into a new life without time or opportunity to cling to the old one. Those elders had nothing like a church to encode or sustain their liturgy, nothing but their two hands to carry every practice that made them Chinese. How heavy they must have grown with each passing year. How eagerly their children would have laid down their share of the weight. My mom didn’t stay in Sacramento long enough after her mother’s funeral for those ladies to pass her their heavy knowledge. All of us kids and grandkids were grateful for the elders’ burst of guidance, but what were the chances we would remember any of it for our own parents’ funerals in coming years? We watched like spectators, carried through the worship and veneration and grief with wide American wonder.

During every childhood trip to Sacramento, we made visiting rounds to elders close and distant, which I always dreaded. Every great auntie and uncle received a half-hour visit, a tin of cookies, and well wishes from the LA family. We managed to knock them all out in one exhausting day. In these houses, as in her siblings’ houses, my mom relayed and received family updates on jobs and babies and divorces. Many offerings of prosperity and longevity were exchanged. No one ever spoke of China. No one spoke of immigration. No one spoke of ties or chains, of longing, grief, fracture, bitterness, alienation, gratitude, remorse, opportunity, relief, assimilation, or the cost and the dream of it all.


My mom never gave me a red egg ceremony. Maybe she would have asked her mother to perform the ceremony, but when I was a month old, I lived in a foster home in Taiwan, awaiting adoption. I arrived in California at nine months, already fat and thick-haired, eating solid food and nearly walking. My whole life, I thought being her only and hard-to-come-by child was the reason my mom fretted endlessly over my health, my future, my fortune, and my ignorance. Perhaps, I wonder now, it was also because I was never washed in boiled egg good luck. Because I wasn’t inoculated with pretty against misfortune or distress, which might always be lurking now. Because I came off the plane from Taipei carrying a faint odor of ocean and an old life.


I am Chinese until I am not. I am asked by strangers where I am really from when California is not a good enough answer. People greet me with ni-hao as if they are doing me a favor. They tell me I look exactly like their Japanese or Thai or Vietnamese friend. If it comes up that I spoke Cantonese as a child, they cry, ooh, say something, as if my first language is a parlor trick. I am assumed to be from elsewhere, assumed to speak otherwise. And I walk through the world feeling a little bit foreign. Until I am confronted with how very little my broken and childish Cantonese can convey. Until I have nothing to contribute to our city’s lunar new year celebration. Until Chinese people I meet are openly crestfallen—heartbroken, really—to hear that I do not speak Cantonese with my parents. Until I am asked at Mass to translate and read the prayers of the faithful in my home language and I offer to do it in Spanish because, I offer, I am from California after all, and because my Spanish is fluent. I kept my Chinese last name when I married so that my name and face would match. I gave each of my daughters a family surname for their middle name. The load I carry for them is paper thin, scrawled and crumpled.


The weekend of the red egg ceremony ended with a banquet dinner at the only Cantonese restaurant in our part of the city. The house for sale three blocks from the restaurant was a no-brainer purchase for us after seeing the gleaming, whole ducks hanging by their necks in the window and the slippery egg tarts in the pastry case. Whenever my family and I go for an early weeknight dinner or an unseemly number of take-out cartons, the owner’s wife pets our girls’ heads, presses sweets into their hands, and treats us to orange slices or red bean cakes. She is from a village in Guangdong near my mom’s, and they speak the same dialect. She has a daughter who moves easily between Cantonese and English, who spills her toys and rides her tricycle freely among the diners. I think I am a somewhat alarming vision of what the owner’s daughter could become: barely functional Cantonese, living nearly two thousand miles from my mother, unable to cook traditional Chinese food, unsteady writer’s paycheck. In their girl, I see an uncanny version of my life, one that will continue to be created as long as immigrants continue forging lives here.  

My mom and the owner’s wife talk in rapid Cantonese. Restaurant life is hard, they agree. And that is all they say about it. Our large party celebrates my daughter’s first month of life, passing and scraping platters of fried meats and saucy vegetables. Any concerns over ceremony or decorum are forgotten as everyone settles in comfortably to this most American of rituals: going out for Chinese food.

As they always do, people watch to see if my mom likes the food, but she betrays nothing, eating with her chin tucked down as she always does. This is the same food she cooked and loaded into take-out cartons for forty-five years. I wonder if this food is the measure of a particular distance she must navigate. The food identifies her as Chinese, yet it is utterly American and unlike anything she grew up eating. The food gave us life here but kept her in the restaurant sometimes twelve hours a day.

As we eat, I think about what mothers fear and hope. That we would make lives in which we live with our daughters, not just watch them live without us. That we would have enough of ourselves to give them a small piece to carry. That they would not carry it too far away. We see in our daughters our inheritance and our rejection, their very beings written with you and not you, as they orbit some sun we hope is warm enough.