A Grandmother’s Story About Family Rejection
“Who’s Irish?” by Gish Jen
AN INTRODUCTION BY CELESTE NG
I don’t remember exactly when I first read “Who’s Irish” for the first time — I only remember that I had never before read a short story featuring Chinese Americans like this. The voice of the story drew me in immediately: it was the voice of my aunties — the whole array of women related to my parents by blood or by friendship — that I’d heard all my life, doling out advice or judgment or, just as commonly, pointed statements of uncomfortable facts.
We talk often about being “seen” in literature, but “Who’s Irish” was the first time I heard a narrative voice that sounded like the ones I’d grown up with: “I am work hard all my life, and fierce besides.” By the time I finished reading, my idea of short stories had expanded — not just in terms of who could be the focus of a story, but who could tell it, what they were allowed to say, and what they were allowed to sound like.
For a long time, I struggled with the concept of being a Chinese-American writer: representation weighs on you in so many different ways. If I wrote about Chinese Americans, I worried, I might get pigeonholed, as many writers from marginalized cultures are. Plus, I knew that however I depicted my Chinese-American characters, many readers would assume they represented all Chinese Americans. We had enough bad representation already. Didn’t I have an obligation to show people like me at their best: as doctors, lawyers, well-adjusted and well-behaving people?
“Who’s Irish” changed my mind about all that. Here I saw a character speaking in her own voice, accented and articulate, with strength as well as plenty of biases and faults, making errors in judgment even as she tries to do the best she can. All of that makes for good fiction, but it’s important representation as well. One of the reasons I love this story is that it gives an honest yet loving portrayal of a Chinese-American woman. We see her fully, with the good and the bad: in short, as a human being. And to my mind, that’s what representation really is: seeing others and ourselves as humans, well-meaning and fallible and loving and shortsighted all at once.
I’m grateful to this story for showing me the role of a Chinese-American writer was wider than I expected, that there was space for telling more than one kind of story. Here’s to many more voices telling their stories.
Author of Little Fires Everywhere
A Grandmother’s Story About Family Rejection
by Gish Jen
In China, people say mixed children are supposed to be smart, and definitely my granddaughter Sophie is smart. But Sophie is wild, Sophie is not like my daughter Natalie, or like me. I am work hard my whole life, and fierce besides. My husband always used to say he is afraid of me, and in our restaurant, busboys and cooks all afraid of me too. Even the gang members come for protection money, they try to talk to my husband. When I am there, they stay away. If they come by mistake, they pretend they are come to eat. They hide behind the menu, they order a lot of food. They talk about their mothers. Oh, my mother have some arthritis, need to take herbal medicine, they say. Oh, my mother getting old, her hair all white now.
I say, Your mother’s hair used to be white, but since she dye it, it become black again. Why don’t you go home once in a while and take a look? I tell them, Confucius say a filial son knows what color his mother’s hair is.
Who’s Irish? (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Book 278)
My daughter is fierce too, she is vice president in the bank now. Her new house is big enough for everybody to have their own room, including me. But Sophie take after Natalie’s husband’s family, their name is Shea. Irish. I always thought Irish people are like Chinese people, work so hard on the railroad, but now I know why the Chinese beat the Irish. Of course, not all Irish are like the Shea family, of course not. My daughter tell me I should not say Irish this, Irish that.
How do you like it when people say the Chinese this, the Chinese that, she say.
You know, the British call the Irish heathen, just like they call the Chinese, she say.
You think the Opium War was bad, how would you like to live right next door to the British, she say.
And that is that. My daughter have a funny habit when she win an argument, she take a sip of something and look away, so the other person is not embarrassed. So I am not embarrassed. I do not call anybody anything either. I just happen to mention about the Shea family, an interesting fact: four brothers in the family, and not one of them work. The mother, Bess, have a job before she got sick, she was executive secretary in a big company. She is handle everything for a big shot, you would be surprised how complicated her job is, not just type this, type that. Now she is a nice woman with a clean house. But her boys, every one of them is on welfare, or so-called severance pay, or so-called disability pay. Something. They say they cannot find work, this is not the economy of the fifties, but I say, Even the black people doing better these days, some of them live so fancy, you’d be surprised. Why the Shea family have so much trouble? They are white people, they speak English. When I come to this country, I have no money and do not speak English. But my husband and I own our restaurant before he die. Free and clear, no mortgage. Of course, I under stand I am just lucky, come from a country where the food is popular all over the world. I understand it is not the Shea family’s fault they come from a country where everything is boiled. Still, I say.
She’s right, we should broaden our horizons, say one brother, Jim, at Thanksgiving. Forget about the car business. Think about egg rolls.
Pad thai, say another brother, Mike. I’m going to make my fortune in pad thai. It’s going to be the new pizza.
I say, You people too picky about what you sell. Selling egg rolls not good enough for you, but at least my husband and I can say, We made it. What can you say? Tell me. What can you say?
Everybody chew their tough turkey.
I especially cannot understand my daughter’s husband John, who has no job but cannot take care of Sophie either. Because he is a man, he say, and that’s the end of the sentence.
Plain boiled food, plain boiled thinking. Even his name is plain boiled: John. Maybe because I grew up with black bean sauce and hoisin sauce and garlic sauce, I always feel something is missing when my son-in-law talk.
But, okay: so my son-in-law can be man, I am baby-sitter. Six hours a day, same as the old sitter, crazy Amy, who quit. This is not so easy, now that I am sixty-eight, Chinese age almost seventy. Still, I try. In China, daughter take care of mother. Here it is the other way around. Mother help daughter, mother ask, Anything else I can do? Otherwise daughter complain mother is not supportive. I tell daughter, We do not have this word in Chinese, supportive. But my daughter too busy to listen, she has to go to meeting, she has to write memo while her husband go to the gym to be a man. My daughter say otherwise he will be depressed. Seems like all his life he has this trouble, depression.
No one wants to hire someone who is depressed, she say. It is important for him to keep his spirits up.
Beautiful wife, beautiful daughter, beautiful house, oven can clean itself automatically. No money left over, because only one income, but lucky enough, got the baby-sitter for free. If John lived in China, he would be very happy. But he is not happy. Even at the gym things go wrong. One day, he pull a muscle. Another day, weight room too crowded. Always something.
Until finally, hooray, he has a job. Then he feel pressure.
I need to concentrate, he say. I need to focus.
He is going to work for insurance company. Salesman job. A paycheck, he say, and at least he will wear clothes instead of gym shorts. My daughter buy him some special candy bars from the health-food store. They say THINK! on them, and are supposed to help John think.
John is a good-looking boy, you have to say that, especially now that he shave so you can see his face.
I am an old man in a young man’s game, say John. I will need a new suit, say John.
This time I am not going to shoot myself in the foot, say John.
Good, I say.
She means to be supportive, my daughter say. Don’t start the send her back to China thing, because we can’t.
Sophie is three years old American age, but already I see her nice Chinese side swallowed up by her wild Shea side. She looks like mostly Chinese. Beautiful black hair, beautiful black eyes. Nose perfect size, not so flat looks like something fell down, not so large looks like some big deal got stuck in wrong face. Everything just right, only her skin is a brown surprise to John’s family. So brown, they say. Even John say it. She never goes in the sun, still she is that color, he say. Brown. They say, Nothing the matter with brown. They are just surprised. So brown. Nattie is not that brown, they say. They say, It seems like Sophie should be a color in between Nattie and John. Seems funny, a girl named Sophie Shea be brown. But she is brown, maybe her name should be Sophie Brown. She never go in the sun, still she is that color, they say. Nothing the matter with brown. They are just surprised.
The Shea family talk is like this sometimes, going around and around like a Christmas-tree train.
Maybe John is not her father, I say one day, to stop the train.
And sure enough, train wreck. None of the brothers ever say the word brown to me again.
Instead, John’s mother, Bess, say, I hope you are not offended.
She say, I did my best on those boys. But raising four boys with no father is no picnic.
You have a beautiful family, I say. I’m getting old, she say.
You deserve a rest, I say. Too many boys make you old. I never had a daughter, she say. You have a daughter.
I have a daughter, I say. Chinese people don’t think a daughter is so great, but you’re right. I have a daughter.
I was never against the marriage, you know, she say. I never thought John was marrying down. I always thought Nattie was just as good as white.
I was never against the marriage either, I say. I just wonder if they look at the whole problem.
Of course you pointed out the problem, you are a mother, she say. And now we both have a granddaughter. A little brown grand daughter, she is so precious to me.
I laugh. A little brown granddaughter, I say. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how she came out so brown.
We laugh some more. These days Bess need a walker to walk. She take so many pills, she need two glasses of water to get them all down. Her favorite TV show is about bloopers, and she love her bird feeder. All day long, she can watch that bird feeder, like a cat.
I can’t wait for her to grow up, Bess say. I could use some female company.
Too many boys, I say.
Boys are fine, she say. But they do surround you after a while.
You should take a break, come live with us, I say. Lots of girls at our house.
Be careful what you offer, say Bess with a wink. Where I come from, people mean for you to move in when they say a thing like that.
Nothing the matter with Sophie’s outside, that’s the truth. It is inside that she is like not any Chinese girl I ever see. We go to the park, and this is what she does. She stand up in the stroller. She take off all her clothes and throw them in the fountain.
Sophie! I say. Stop!
But she just laugh like a crazy person. Before I take over as baby-sitter, Sophie has that crazy-person sitter, Amy the guitar player. My daughter thought this Amy very creative-another word we do not talk about in China. In China, we talk about whether we have difficulty or no difficulty. We talk about whether life is bitter or not bitter. In America, all day long, people talk about creative. Never mind that I cannot even look at this Amy, with her shirt so short that her belly button showing. This Amy think Sophie should love her body. So when Sophie take off her diaper, Amy laugh. When Sophie run around naked, Amy say she wouldn’t want to wear a diaper either. When Sophie go shu-shu in her lap, Amy laugh and say there are no germs in pee. When Sophie take off her shoes, Amy say bare feet is best, even the pediatrician say so. That is why Sophie now walk around with no shoes like a beggar child. Also why Sophie love to take off her clothes.
Turn around! say the boys in the park. Let’s see that ass!
Of course, Sophie does not understand. Sophie clap her hands, I am the only one to say, No! This is not a game.
It has nothing to do with John’s family, my daughter say. Amy was too permissive, that’s all.
But I think if Sophie was not wild inside, she would not take off her shoes and clothes to begin with.
You never take off your clothes when you were little, I say. All my Chinese friends had babies, I never saw one of them act wild like that.
Look, my daughter say. I have a big presentation tomorrow.
John and my daughter agree Sophie is a problem, but they don’t know what to do.
You spank her, she’ll stop, I say another day. But they say, Oh no.
In America, parents not supposed to spank the child.
It gives them low self-esteem, my daughter say. And that leads to problems later, as I happen to know.
My daughter never have big presentation the next day when the subject of spanking come up.
I don’t want you to touch Sophie, she say. No spanking, period.
Don’t tell me what to do, I say.
I’m not telling you what to do, say my daughter. I’m telling you how l feel.
I am not your servant, I say. Don’t you dare talk to me like that. My daughter have another funny habit when she lose an argument. She spread out all her fingers and look at them, as if she like to make sure they are still there.
My daughter is fierce like me, but she and John think it is better to explain to Sophie that clothes are a good idea. This is not so hard in the cold weather. In the warm weather, it is very hard.
Use your words, my daughter say. That’s what we tell Sophie. How about if you set a good example.
As if good example mean anything to Sophie. I am so fierce, the gang members who used to come to the restaurant all afraid of me, but Sophie is not afraid.
I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no snack.
I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no lunch.
I say, Sophie, if you take off your clothes, no park.
Pretty soon we are stay home all day, and by the end of six hours she still did not have one thing to eat. You never saw a child stubborn like that.
I’m hungry! she cry when my daughter come home.
What’s the matter, doesn’t your grandmother feed you? My daughter laugh.
No! Sophie say. She doesn’t feed me anything! My daughter laugh again. Here you go, she say. She say to John, Sophie must be growing.
Growing like a weed, I say.
Still Sophie take off her clothes, until one day I spank her. Not too hard, but she cry and cry, and when I tell her if she doesn’t put her clothes back on I’ll spank her again, she put her clothes back on. Then I tell her she is good girl, and give her some food to eat. The next day we go to the park and, like a nice Chinese girl, she does not take off her clothes.
She stop taking off her clothes, I report. Finally! How did you do it? my daughter ask.
After twenty-eight years experience with you, I guess I learn something, I say.
It must have been a phase, John say, and his voice is suddenly like an expert.
His voice is like an expert about everything these days, now that he carry a leather briefcase, and wear shiny shoes, and can go shopping for a new car. On the company, he say. The company will pay for it, but he will be able to drive it whenever he want.
A free car, he say. How do you like that.
It’s good to see you in the saddle again, my daughter say. Some of your family patterns are scary.
At least I don’t drink, he say. He say, And I’m not the only one with scary family patterns.
That’s for sure, say my daughter.
Everyone is happy. Even I am happy, because there is more trouble with Sophie, but now I think I can help her Chinese side fight against her wild side. I teach her to eat food with fork or spoon or chopsticks, she cannot just grab into the middle of a bowl of noodles. I teach her not to play with garbage cans. Sometimes I spank her, but not too often, and not too hard.
Still, there are problems. Sophie like to climb everything. If there is a railing, she is never next to it. Always she is on top of it. Also, Sophie like to hit the mommies of her friends. She learn this from her playground best friend, Sinbad, who is four. Sinbad wear army clothes every day and like to ambush his mommy. He is the one who dug a big hole under the play structure, a foxhole he call it, all by himself. Very hardworking. Now he wait in the foxhole with a shovel full of wet sand. When his mommy come, he throw it right at her.
Oh, it’s all right, his mommy say. You can’t get rid of war games, it’s part of their imaginative play. All the boys go through it.
Also, he like to kick his mommy, and one day he tell Sophie to kick his mommy too.
I wish this story is not true. Kick her, kick her! Sinbad say.
Sophie kick her. A little kick, as if she just so happened was swinging her little leg and didn’t realize that big mommy leg was in the way. Still I spank Sophie and make Sophie say sorry, and what does the mommy say?
Really, it’s all right, she say. It didn’t hurt.
After that, Sophie learn she can attack mommies in the play ground, and some will say, Stop, but others will say, Oh, she didn’t mean it, especially if they realize Sophie will be punished.
This is how, one day, bigger trouble come. The bigger trouble start when Sophie hide in the foxhole with that shovel full of sand. She wait, and when I come look for her, she throw it at me. All over my nice clean clothes.
Did you ever see a Chinese girl act this way?
Sophie! I say. Come out of there, say you’re sorry.
But she does not come out. Instead, she laugh. Naaah, naah na, naaa-naaa, she say.
I am not exaggerate: millions of children in China, not one act like this.
Sophie! I say. Now! Come out now!
But she know she is in big trouble. She know if she come out, what will happen next. So she does not come out. I am sixty-eight, Chinese age almost seventy, how can I crawl under there to catch her? Impossible. So I yell, yell, yell, and what happen? Nothing. A Chinese mother would help, but American mothers, they look at you, they shake their head, they go home. And, of course, a Chinese child would give up, but not Sophie.
I hate you! she yell. I hate you, Meanie!
Meanie is my new name these days.
Long time this goes on, long long time. The foxhole is deep, you cannot see too much, you don’t know where is the bottom. You cannot hear too much either. Ifshe does not yell, you cannot even know she is still there or not. After a while, getting cold out, getting dark out. No one left in the playground, only us.
Sophie, I say. How did you become stubborn like this? I am go home without you now.
I try to use a stick, chase her out of there, and once or twice I hit her, but still she does not come out. So finally I leave. I go out side the gate.
Bye-bye! I say. I’m go home now.
But still she does not come out and does not come out. Now it is dinnertime, the sky is black. I think I should maybe go get help, but how can I leave a little girl by herself in the playground? A bad man could come. A rat could come. I go back in to see what is happen to Sophie. What if she have a shovel and is making a tunnel to escape?
Sophie! I say. No answer.
I don’t know if she is alive. I don’t know if she is fall asleep down there. If she is crying, I cannot hear her.
So I take the stick and poke.
Sophie! I say. I promise I no hit you. If you come out, I give you a lollipop.
No answer. By now I worried. What to do, what to do, what to do? I poke some more, even harder, so that I am poking and poking when my daughter and John suddenly appear.
What are you doing? What is going on? say my daughter. Put down that stick! say my daughter.
You are crazy! say my daughter.
John wiggle under the structure, into the foxhole, to rescue Sophie.
She fell asleep, say John the expert. She’s okay. That is one big hole.
Now Sophie is crying and crying.
Sophia, my daughter say, hugging her. Are you okay, peanut?
Are you okay?
She’s just scared, say John.
Are you okay? I say too. I don’t know what happen, I say.
She’s okay, say John. He is not like my daughter, full of questions. He is full of answers until we get home and can see by the lamplight.
Will you look at her? he yell then. What the hell happened?
Bruises all over her brown skin, and a swollen-up eye.
You are crazy! say my daughter. Look at what you did! You are crazy!
I try very hard, I say.
How could you use a stick? I told you to use your words! She is hard to handle, I say.
She’s three years old! You cannot use a stick! say my daughter. She is not like any Chinese girl I ever saw, I say.
I brush some sand off my clothes. Sophie’s clothes are dirty too, but at least she has her clothes on.
Has she done this before? ask my daughter. Has she hit you before?
She hits me all the time, Sophie say, eating ice cream. Your family, say John.
Believe me, say my daughter.
A daughter I have, a beautiful daughter. I took care of her when she could not hold her head up. I took care of her before she could argue with me, when she was a little girl with two pigtails, one of them always crooked. I took care of her when we have to escape from China, I took care of her when suddenly we live in a country with cars everywhere, if you are not careful your little girl get run over. When my husband die, I promise him I will keep the family together, even though it was just two of us, hardly a family at all.
But now my daughter take me around to look at apartments. After all, I can cook, I can clean, there’s no reason I cannot live by myself, all I need is a telephone. Of course, she is sorry. Sometimes she cry, I am the one to say everything will be okay. She say she have no choice, she doesn’t want to end up divorced. I say divorce is terrible, I don’t know who invented this terrible idea. Instead of live with a telephone, though, surprise, I come to live with Bess.
Imagine that. Bess make an offer and, sure enough, where she come from, people mean for you to move in when they say things like that. A crazy idea, go to live with someone else’s family, but she like to have some female company, not like my daughter, who does not believe in company. These days when my daughter visit, she does not bring Sophie. Bess say we should give Nattie time, we will see Sophie again soon. But seems like my daughter have more presentation than ever before, every time she come she have to leave.
I have a family to support, she say, and her voice is heavy, as if soaking wet. I have a young daughter and a depressed husband and no one to turn to.
When she say no one to turn to, she mean me.
These days my beautiful daughter is so tired she can just sit there in a chair and fall asleep. John lost his job again, already, but still they rather hire a baby-sitter than ask me to help, even they can’t afford it. Of course, the new baby-sitter is much younger, can run around. I don’t know if Sophie these days is wild or not wild. She call me Meanie, but she like to kiss me too, sometimes. I remember that every time I see a child on TV. Sophie like to grab my hair, a fistful in each hand, and then kiss me smack on the nose. I never see any other child kiss that way.
The satellite TV has so many channels, more channels than I can count, including a Chinese channel from the Mainland and a Chinese channel from Taiwan, but most of the time I watch bloopers with Bess. Also, I watch the bird feeder-so many, many kinds of birds come. The Shea sons hang around all the time, asking when will I go home, but Bess tell them, Get lost.
She’s a permanent resident, say Bess. She isn’t going anywhere.
Then she wink at me, and switch the channel with the remote control.
Of course, I shouldn’t say Irish this, Irish that, especially now I am become honorary Irish myself, according to Bess. Me! Who’s Irish? I say, and she laugh. All the same, if I could mention one thing about some of the Irish, not all of them of course, I like to mention this: Their talk just stick. I don’t know how Bess Shea learn to use her words, but sometimes I hear what she say a long time later. Permanent resident. Not going anywhere. Over and over I hear it, the voice of Bess.