Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief. The act of severing and tossing away the victim’s head enables him to throw away all of his bereavements. Perhaps you think this does not apply to you. Yet you recall the day your wife, driving you to your mother’s funeral, turned left instead of right at the intersection and you had to scream at her so loud other drivers turned to look. When you tore her head off and threw it out the window they nodded, changed gears, drove away.
—Anne Carson, Grief Lessons
心疼 (xīn téng): to love tenderly; to regret; to heartache
Chinese parents don’t often tell you that they love you, but they love you. Instead, they might say 我疼你—wǒ téng nǐ—my heart is tender for you, like a bruise; like your pain is my pain, your suffering is my hurt, too; I love you so much my heart hurts, grieves; I love you so much I would sacrifice my life for yours. My love for you is animal. Do you know? Would you hold it anyway?
My symptoms? Unbearable silence. It racks my palms. What I mean to say, what I want to say, is simply this: I know.
My aunts came to town a few years ago and my mother took them to the Toronto pride parade. “Do you want to come?” my mother asked, and my heart inflated briefly, myself then a gloomy, closeted teen. In my hesitation she continued, “It would be good for you to see all the qíguài de (strange; grotesque; surprising) people.”
“I have no idea what pride is,” I lied. “No thank you!”
I’m not sure when I figured out that I wasn’t straight. At some point between Grade 9 and 11 I must have known, but the date is unclear because I am very skilled at repressing things. The first time I came out became a retraction. We were in the school library, whispering over cubicles and the smell of sun drought, aging books. “Do you want to be gay?” my friend asked. I shook my head, sore inside, until she told me, “Well, I don’t think you’re gay.” Unconvinced, I thanked her for the affirmation.
The first (real) time I came out took place on a campus green in a circle of students, through a group fist bump. “Only if you feel comfortable,” said one of my floormates. We were on our way back from an orientation event, all lax-limbed and stumbling under a dusky, blue-drenched sky. The air was electric with the scent of grass and moisture—the end of summer. I watched as, one by one, the students around me put their hands forward. Then I, too, surrendered myself for judgement.
Each time after was a little easier, the truth filling my mouth in bountiful, delicate splendor and spilling out like air.
My mother is a good mother. She bandages my scrapes and scolds me for not being more careful. She drives me to my soccer practices, and calls me when I am feeling lonely, and picks out the choicest strawberries for me while eating the overripe bits herself. On a crowded bus with only one open seat, she tells me to sit. She sent me to college, her only child, in a city far away from her, and when I am busy and forget to call for a week or more, she tells me it is okay.
She loves me so much that sometimes I am suffocated by the weight of it. It is not a gentle love. It is a love that compels, and coerces, and binds. It is a love that has ached and starved and blistered its way into a better life so that her child does not have to suffer as she did, and it is a love that is barbed, so her child remembers that she did, indeed, suffer. Once she told me about the summers she spent picking lotus roots from the river and the times she would walk miles from university to the train station to visit home, carrying one small gift of sweets that she had saved from New Year’s. She would think about eating them but never, ever did.
The truth is that my sexual awakening happened through reading queer fiction. It was my deeply embarrassing secret life. I felt greedy and insatiable, sometimes consuming hundreds of thousands of words in one afternoon. As reader, I was an unseen vagabond in these affairs, both imagined and infinitely real. I could not be held responsible for the acts themselves, nor the dream of them.
A part of me felt guilty in my excess, in the implications of my interests that I refused to acknowledge, and so for years, I refused them. I constructed a hideaway out of this nonsense—a quiet one, kept neat and kind. I thought that I could keep it quiet.
This was how I learned the routines of same-gender attraction. The loaded gazes, the hand-to-hand touches, the hair-behind-the-ear tucks, and smiles that were special. Love as confession, love as display. And of course, the “coming out”—jubilant, liberating, inexorable. The stories would feature mostly white girls, receiving hugs from their parents and hearing “Thank you for telling me! Of course I still love you.” Less frequently, yet equally resonating, “Not in my house.”
Love you, I would mouth to myself, testing it on my tongue. When I eventually came out to my mother, she did, in fact, tell me she loved me, though not in those words. She said instead: my precious child, I have failed you. My precious daughter, I have ruined you.
The less famous of the three Theban plays written by Sophocles is Antigone, about the sad sad daughter of Oedipus Rex, the guy infamous for killing his father and fucking his mother. After Oedipus fades away, ruined and alone, his two sons kill each other for the throne. In defiance of her uncle Creon, the new king, Antigone seeks a proper burial for one of her brothers but is caught and condemned to death by slow starvation in a cave, where she chooses to hang herself, moments before she would have been rescued by Creon with a changed heart. Creon’s son who is in love with Antigone commits suicide in grief. Creon’s wife, now grieving their son, is the third to go.
In short, Antigone was a stone cold bitch, and maybe more stone than girl in the end.
I liked this myth because of the obvious man v. woman, divinity v. humanity, political v. personal dichotomies. But it got me thinking, what would I do for my family? And how could anyone carry the weight of all that trauma and survive? Antigone carried her brother’s body of sweet rot all up a hill. Under cover of dust and dark, she ducked. Who knows where she laid him down to rest? Wiped with wet cloth what remained of his face before covering him with soil, nutrient rich, organic matter, as if one had to be clean to be restful.
In one translation of Antigone: Antigone walks the stage with a door strapped to her back. This Antigone is righteous and sensible; she is on the side of law. Her burdens are earthly, her conflict is political, she hoists her door on two strong shoulders.
In another translation of Antigone: Antigone chooses principle and refuses life. She has chosen to die, even as her original reasons are revealed to be senseless. This Antigone has a role to play, her role is death, she performs it beautifully. This Antigone is a little sadder than the first one.
Why does tragedy exist? Anne Carson writes, “Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” Carson is a poet as well as translator. She understands that pain comes in many forms. In high school, I was obsessed with her book Antigonick, which is a contemporary translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, and not so much a book as it is a scrapbook. I was obsessed with Antigone, a manic, perilous character, whose grief obliterates long after her death. In the book, Carson writes, “this terrible thing we’re witnessing now is / not unique you know it happened before / or something much like it.” I suppose there is comfort in this correspondence.
There are days when I feel consumed by an inexpressible rage, when I am ground down and churning inside, feeling volatile, feeling in pieces. When words are not enough to expel these feelings. When I try to speak, but speak across a chasm and feel my words get lost before they reach the other side. Then, I become wrath and unrecognizable to myself. I do not think my mother knows me either.
My parents love me very much. In hindsight, that was never the question. The question was: do I love them back enough? To choose them? To choose them every time? There is a slow death in making a choice that is not a choice at all.
The winter break of my sophomore year, I was in the kitchen watching my mother chopping green onions with practiced ease—the lifting of the knife, the steely blade parting sweet fibers, the scrape as she pushed fragrant pieces to one side and began again. I asked, Will you always love me no matter what? Even if I fail out of school? Even if I am unemployed? Even if I never marry? I was crying at this point, my mother’s chopped green onions stewing in the air with the salt of my tears. Words rose like sand castles and crumpled themselves in the cavern of my mouth. Then, finally, the truth.
For a week, the hardwood of my home was cool to the touch. I spent days in my room, sometimes tiptoeing downstairs for food, avoiding the creaks in the floorboards and my mother’s silent eyes. I was wading through something thick and uneasy—like that moment between stubbing your toe and feeling pain. Sometimes I laughed at nothing to break the tension, a trait I’ve acquired from my father. He would bring freshly cut watermelon and beam at me and tell me everything would be alright, and I would think, you don’t know what I’ve done.
One afternoon, my mother came to me as I lay in bed watching yet another television series and soaking in my own remorse.
“If only I could take this pain from you,” she said, “I would die for you, if only.”
“Not pain but hope,” I said. I did not say, Your pain.
“Promise me you will marry a man,” she said, gripping my hands in hers. I had never seen her cry before until that day, kneeling on the threaded carpet with her thumbs pressed into my wrist. I looked into her eyes and saw mourning. I did not say, I am dying inside already, I said, “Yes, I promise.”
Rage is a compulsion directed towards others. Grief is one undertaken by yourself, a corpse you carry on your back. I wanted anger from my mother, but received pain, received grief, received suffering. So when my mother, convinced that this secret might literally kill my father, decided not to tell him what we had talked about, I agreed that it was for the best. Still I think of Antigone, who carried her brother’s body to a grave, but was condemned to a grave of her own.
I had a role to play, and I played it beautifully. I mastered a choreography of avoidance. Every holiday, we dance through a minefield of family gatherings and dinners. I am always nothing but accommodating, nothing but judicious, and sometimes, just nothing. I say no, whenever someone asks if I had a male “friend,” one teasing syllable drawn up. “No,” I say, genuinely sorry. Then, “Not yet.” My atonement.
I watched a lot of “coming out” videos on YouTube. Always with titles like, MY COMING OUT STORY PT. 2! (20:34). Their protagonists, accessibly golden-haired and all-American hot, always told me to do it when you’re ready—only when you’re ready! They would weep, sadness welling up in the creases of their seafoam eyes and dribbling down their nose, but look good anyway. I would lose myself in those videos late at night, wishing sadness always looked that good.
They seemed convinced that eventually you would be ready, that this was but one box on the journey toward Accepting Yourself. But it seemed to me, also, a selfish box to check. An unforgiving box to check. However much I admired how they seemed to make their own unbending arc in the universe, when the time came for me to tell my mother, all I’d made was a scar.
My heritage is a collectivist culture, where the wellbeing of the community is prioritized over the interests of the individual. Your triumphs are my triumphs. Your shame is my shame. You could say that the interests of the individual correspond to the wellbeing of the group, every member dependent on every other member, but they don’t, not always. See, my question was awful. Would you love me like a bruise?
To be born into a space that has always made room for your body, never needing to shape yourself, distort yourself—to exist unapologetically and expect others to yield, change, or accommodate simply because you have never needed to yield yourself—I envied that. I resented that, too. Avoiding conflict has characterized so much of my life that part of me has always expected to compromise. Perhaps that was why I was so fascinated by people who seemingly did not have to.
By fascination, I mean that I developed debilitating crushes on girls. Always tall, white, and beautiful, in the straightforward way that only white people can be. One from when I was 11 in badminton camp. One from when I was 14 in high school. The last one—the first one who wasn’t straight—from when I was 17 and had just started college. In deep hunger, I would pedestalize them. I would think about them, write about them, dream about them, imagine holding their hand as a baby bird in my palm (too fragile). I was fascinated by my crushes, or by, perhaps, my own intensity.
One of the first queer people I ever met was this girl who lived down the hall of my first-year dorm. She was two years older, stunningly cosmopolitan, and spoke five languages. I was enthralled instantly. We chatted for 15 minutes, and then I spent the rest of the night shivering in my room and feeling absurd, thinking about the freckles on her face, and her serious hazel eyes, and her girlfriend—her girlfriend, who lived in Italy and spoke Italian and whom she was in love with.
We became very close, very quickly, over the next month. I was infatuated with her, hopelessly so. I never would have made a move, not just because she had a girlfriend, but because I would not have known how to. It didn’t matter; I found my passion dramatic and delicious. We studied together, dined together, attended class together. I wrote and sighed over her, and felt profoundly romantic, enduringly tragic. “A shame that this could never be!” I lamented, but secretly was relieved. I was embracing my sexuality without necessarily confronting it. I was honest, but not culpable.
In the lounge of our dorm, a sticky place with mismatched yellow couches and overturned cushions and the pervasive smell of old carpet, I leaned my head against her neck as she read her French homework out loud. “Am I boring you?” she asked. “No, not at all.” “You’d listen even though you can’t understand what I’m saying?” She said this slowly, fondly. A little surprised.
“I’d listen anyway,” I confessed, mesmerized by the low rumble of her voice that I half felt through her shoulder and heard through the air. Cruelly, I wondered, Would you?
Then a mutual friend walked in with two biology books tucked under her arms, and smiled at us. I felt, all of a sudden, stricken. Like she could read my thoughts through the veneer of my face, and despite my efforts to keep my fiction internal, it had seeped out and become something, maybe, real.
So later I would confide in my friends, “Honestly I think we’re too different to work out haha.” I would say, “Sorry I romanticized the situation too much… AGAIN!!” I would say this as if surprised. I would develop a new crush, an easier crush, one that annihilates and begins again.
The lounge was renovated the next year, and I peered inside on the first day of school. They’d lain new carpet and erected a glass hallway. I could hardly recognize the room.
I’ve made a list in my journal; it goes like this:
- If I never dated anybody, I would not need to have a conversation with my parents. Pros: I keep my family. Cons: I am alone forever.
- If I were to fall in love with a woman… Pros: I have love! Cons: Generational heartbreak.
It is not a very helpful list, I think.
Tragedies are a communal experience, and so, so, familiar. Familiar too, is the flaying out of our pain for consumption, or, more generously, commiseration. To seek understanding is to be flayed from the inside out, but then flaying can be a form of absolution too.
The summer before I started college, my parents took me on a trip to China. It was my first time visiting my homeland in nine years, so everything was familiar and alien at the same time. There were windburnt bikers, whose engines whined and choked on dust when they accelerated through the streets, two or three to a lane. There were dewy night markets, with lamb kabobs seared by street side vendors and coated with red silty seasoning. There were popsicle stands that sold white milk bars I would lick before they dripped down my fingers, and there was a lushness in the greenery of the surrounding hills, which grew around the smog of a growing city—bustling, bursting at the seams, a little too restless in its own space.
My father grew up on a farm in the green hills outside of this city, Fuzhou. I could picture him here before he immigrated to Canada, spraying chickens with seed under a pink sky, tilling the land with sunburnt hands, and paging through an English dictionary with his lean brown legs dipped in a pond, mosquitoes nipping at every piece of him except that which was in the water.
That night, my aunt drove us down a sheer cliff on a winding dirt road that only had space for one lane. It was a heavy night, a blanket of heat pressing down upon the steely frame of the car until condensation built on the windows. The only light around us emitted from the car’s headlamps. Gravel crunched beneath the tires, and tinny pop music warbled from the radio. My father grew smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, the darkness overtaking his figure before the distance did. He would nap that night at my grandparents’ farm, in his childhood home. They would all come to my graduation, they promised, they would get a visa and do it, because they were proud, so proud!
In Toronto, later, on a phone line that crackled with distance, my grandmother and I would sit in silence for seconds that felt like minutes. “Thank you for calling,” I would say, loudly, due to her bad ears. “Thank you… take care of your health!” Even though I’ve already said that. I would say it again anyway, not sure what else to say. Not sure where this conversation was heading, not sure, even, what my grandmother was saying through the crackly phone and her slow, soft accent. I disliked these phone calls, that my father would push against my ear without warning once every month, because I hated talking without saying anything real. We would never say anything real, my grandmother and I, but still she was my grandmother. I would listen, even if I couldn’t understand what she was saying, knowing that she was doing the same for me.
After my parents immigrated and before I was born, my body nestled in my mother’s womb as she studied for exams at a community college while my father did research in a different city. She would walk from classes with her arms wrapped around her swollen stomach, her gait slower every day as summer shed into fall and the trees tremored with fresh chill. Pedestrians would start to pass her on the long march home, longer every day, but still she walked. I do not remember this but I imagine I must have been warm. My mother’s hands, shielding me from the blistering wind, like twin candles of hope. Hope, not grief. Not pain.
CZ Zeng lives in Boston. Her work has been previously published in The Hunger Journal. Find her on twitter @bombdotca.