By Kate Lu
When Liam propped himself up on one elbow and said, “Ellie, I think it’s about time I met your parents,” I knew I was in trouble.
It had been midmorning last Saturday, and like every other Saturday morning that we’d spent together for as long as we had been dating, Liam and I were still lying in bed, not dressed, dozing in the too-warm white sheets.
I put my hands over my face and groaned. “Liam, I don’t think that’s a very good idea. We’ve been over this.”
Liam laughed, pulling at my elbow. “It’s been a year and they still don’t know.”
As I peeped at him through my fingers, he lay flat on his back with a sigh, his face smoothing out into a serious expression.
“You’ve met my parents. They weren’t so bad.”
“Your parents aren’t Asian,” I said, sitting up in bed and looking down at him. “My mom would freak out if she knew that the guy I was dating wasn’t Chinese.” I paused to reconsider. “Actually I think my mom would freak out if she knew I was dating a guy at all, but the fact that you don’t quite meet her standards racially makes it worse.”
Liam pursed his lips, and I could tell that he was struggling not to give me the puppy dog look that he knew worked on me every time.
“It’s been a year, Ellie,” he said again. He tangled his feet with mine; the desperate way he did it felt like a plea. “Things have been pretty serious for a while now. Just think about it, okay?”
I leaned back against the headboard and stared at the bright blue wall in front of me. I sighed.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll talk to my mom, okay?”
Liam sat up and kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you.”
“You’re going to regret this,” I warned him.
He laughed and got out of bed, looking around the floor for his pants.
“How bad can they be?” he asked, gathering his clothes from off the floor.
I watched him, bemused. “You’d be surprised,” I said.
Liam and I had met while we were still undergraduates, but we didn’t start dating until we were both going to the same university for graduate school. He was the best friend of my roommate’s boyfriend, Sam. Both of them had gone to the same high school in California, and Liam had stayed there to do his undergrad at UCLA. He likes to tell people that he came across the country to DC for grad school because of me, but I know that isn’t true; when he first met me while he was visiting Sam during our senior year, I’m pretty sure he didn’t give me a second thought. While he and Sam caught up, my roommate, Claire, and I felt like third and fourth wheels.
Liam and I didn’t meet again until he had arrived in DC for graduate school. This time, though, things were different: Claire and Sam had gotten engaged and were planning their wedding, and so Liam, who didn’t know anyone else on the East Coast, was thrown together with me, even though I generally kept to myself. We didn’t start dating until about a year into getting our masters degrees. Liam was doing political science; I was doing English literature. We had almost nothing in common except for our mutual friendship with Sam, but somewhere between all the coffee dates, the cram sessions, and the trips to the library where we had to help carry each other’s books, we grew close. When we started dating, no one was really surprised.
Now, one year later, we were both out of grad school and looking for jobs. My mother always expected me to move back home after finishing school and to look for a job in New York, but I had no intention of doing that. I’d never admitted it in so many words, but the entire reason for my going to school in DC and staying as far away from New York as I possibly could during that time was to get away from my parents. I still hadn’t grown out of that need to escape that had claimed me during high school. Even when I was over two hundred miles away from my parents, I felt like I was suffocating whenever my mother called me, like I was back in high school and my mother was still dangling her rules over my head.
It was that disconnect that had caused me to hide my relationship with Liam from them for an entire year. It was easy to do; my parents visited me in DC so infrequently that it was a matter of lying by omission. I already knew that they wouldn’t approve of him just based on what my mother had told me when I was in high school and an Italian boy in my class had asked me out. I had only told her about the incident in the interest of being honest; after that, I told my mother as little as I could get away with.
“White boys will just leave you in the end,” she told me. Her voice climbed several octaves as she lectured me, as if it were my fault that a boy had asked me on a date. “I don’t want you dating any boys who aren’t Chinese. If he were Chinese, maybe I’d think about it, but he isn’t. You aren’t allowed to date boys who aren’t Chinese.”
My father had remained silent while my mother yelled at me; he sat on the couch with his arms crossed and stared at the wall. I wondered if he was even listening. His silence meant that my mother’s words were rule, and that was the end of it.
Now, so many years later, a tight knot of anxiety formed in my stomach at the thought of telling my parents about Liam. Twenty-four years old, and I still felt like a little girl trying to appease her parents.
On Saturday afternoon, I paced around my living room, holding my phone and trying to work up the nerve to call my mother. Liam had left a few hours ago to run errands; he wouldn’t be back until dinner.
Finally, standing in front of the window that looked out onto N Street, I took a deep breath and dialed my parents’ house. My mother picked up on the fifth ring.
“Hello?” she said in English.
It took me a moment to think of the words. “Hi, Mom,” I said, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans.
“Ellie!” she said. She switched to Chinese. “It’s been a while since you called. We were beginning to worry about you.”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I said, rolling my eyes and deferring to her native tongue. “Listen, I have to talk to you about something.”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the phone. Then my mother said, “What happened?”
“Um.” I bit my lip. “Well, um. I’ve been dating this guy . . .”
“A boy?” My mother’s voice was a little too loud. “You’ve been dating a boy? For how long?”
“A couple months,” I said, wincing. I told myself that it wasn’t, technically speaking, a lie.
“Is he Chinese?” she asked, her voice full of critical accusation.
“Uh,” I said. “Well. No. No, Mom, he isn’t.” I put my free hand to my forehead and massaged my temples.
My mother didn’t take long to process this information before she started yelling in earnest. “Ellie,” she said, “I don’t want you dating this boy. You are going to marry a Chinese boy, preferably a doctor, someone with a good background and a good education—”
“It’s not like I picked him up off the street,” I protested. I leaned my head against the cool window and stared down at the traffic below. “Look, we were planning to come up to New York to visit some friends of ours next weekend anyway, and I thought it would be good for you to meet him.”
“I don’t want to meet him; I don’t want you seeing him,” my mother said tersely. “I knew living down there for so long would be bad for you. I knew you should have just come home right away after undergrad. You should have gone to graduate school at NYU.”
I bit back a frustrated groan; we had had this argument a million times. “Mom, we can have him over for dinner. It’s just one meal. He’s not so bad, really. Just meet him, okay? You and Daddy.”
My mother made a hmph noise and sighed loudly. “Fine. Dinner. Okay. I’ll let you know what time.”
“Thank you,” I said, but my mother had already hung up.
“So have you talked to your mother yet?” Liam asked me. He was lying on my bed while I dug around in the bathroom cabinet for his spare toothbrush.
“I talked to her this afternoon,” I said. I pulled the toothbrush out of the cabinet and handed it to him.
“And she said you can come to dinner while we’re in New York next week visiting the girls,” I said, referring to two of our old graduate school friends who were now roommates in New York.
“Is that all she said?” Liam asked.
“More or less.” I didn’t want to tell him that she already didn’t like him.
“Okay,” said Liam.
“Just okay?” I stretched out on the bed next to him and put my head on his shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m glad I finally get to meet her.” His voice sounded flat.
“What, are you nervous?” I teased him, poking him in the ribs.
“No, of course not.” He responded a little too quickly. I propped myself up on one elbow and looked at him; his mouth was pulled into a slight frown.
“You are, aren’t you. You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“No, no.” Liam sat up. “It’s important. I mean, I guess it’s the proper thing to do at this point.”
“If you say so,” I said. I had been all too happy to keep our relationship a secret from my parents, and I wouldn’t have had a problem calling my mother back and telling her that my earlier revelation had all been one elaborate joke.
“I’m fine,” said Liam. “I’ll be fine.” He got up to brush his teeth without looking at me.
Later, lying next to him in the dark, I watched him sleep. He always fell asleep before me, so I would usually be stuck staring at the ceiling for half an hour while he snored. That night, though, I watched as a crease formed between his eyes and his jaw tightened while he ground his teeth together. I put my thumb on his forehead, as if to smooth out the skin there.
“It’ll be okay,” I whispered. At least, I hoped it would be.
I met Liam’s parents when his father flew out to DC on a business trip; Liam’s mother tagged along with him. We had dinner at a restaurant I don’t even remember the name of. It was one of those classic, all-American steakhouses that Liam loves and I hate, mostly because he could eat steak every night and I don’t eat any kind of meat except poultry.
I remember being almost nauseous, wondering what Liam’s parents would think of him dating a Chinese girl, but they shook my hand without batting an eye; ethnicity didn’t come up in the dinner conversation at all. They were staid, polite people—a typical upper-middle class couple, nondescript, suburban. They asked all the usual questions about what I was studying and what I wanted to do with my life, how Liam and I had met and how long we had known each other. His father wasn’t very talkative, but his mother smiled a lot and offered me some of her food. They were friendly in a restrained sort of way, but they also weren’t people that I would just be able to fall into conversation with. Liam thought they seemed to like me. At the end of that weekend they both flew back to California, and I haven’t seen them since. Sometimes, Liam says, they ask about how I’m doing.
I’d have liked to think that Liam would have just as easy a time meeting my parents, but I knew that that wasn’t going to be the case.
The following Friday afternoon, Liam and I took a bus to New York and met our friends at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. We wouldn’t be having dinner with my parents until Saturday night, but Liam, I could tell, was already in a state of nervousness. For Friday evening and the day after, he was uncharacteristically quiet. I would have expected his usual, jovial self to be amplified by seeing our old friends, but he didn’t say much during meals or sightseeing, which unnerved me.
While we were sitting in our friends’ living room waiting for them to get ready for lunch on Saturday, I put my hand on Liam’s arm.
“Hey,” I said, “are you feeling all right? You’ve been awfully quiet for the past few days.”
He gave me a weak smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m all right, really.”
I twined my fingers in his and squeezed his hand. “Are you nervous about tonight?”
He looked down at our hands and then back to me again. “Maybe a little,” he admitted.
“You’re the one who requested this,” I pointed out, half teasing and half serious.
“I know,” said Liam, “but I can’t help being nervous when you tell me such wonderful things about your mother.” He arched his eyebrows at me.
I frowned. “It’s not that my mother is a bad person,” I said carefully, “it’s just that she’s ridiculously traditional. She basically thinks that Chinese people should have a miniature country of their own in America, where none of that Western stuff will be able to get in. Marrying me off to a Chinese guy is important to her; it means that, even though I was born here, I’m still a fundamentally Chinese girl. It’ll mean that she raised me the right way. The thing with me is that I’ve never been able to agree with her about any of that.” I wrung my hands, struggling to explain. “Does that even make sense?”
Liam nodded. “It does, I think. Doesn’t really make me feel less nervous, though.”
“You’ll be fine,” I said. “And even if you’re not, I’ve been with you for a year. I feel like it’d be rude to leave at this point just because Mommy says so.”
Liam laughed then. “Well, as long as you’re committed to that.”
Dinner was at seven. At six-fifty, Liam and I stood in front of my parents’ tiny four-floor walkup in Flushing, bracing ourselves.
“Ready?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said, taking my hand. “Let’s go.”
I pulled out the keys I hadn’t used in months and opened the front door, then led Liam to the second floor, where my parents lived. I figured it would be good to knock, so I did.
My mother flung open the door. She was framed in the doorway, diminutive and critical, and passed a sharp eye over Liam, who towered nearly two feet above her. She looked him up and down, took in his slightly wrinkled shirt and his neatly combed hair, and frowned slightly. Then she saw me.
“Ellie!” she said, hugging me awkwardly. My mother didn’t start hugging me until I went off to college and she didn’t get to see me all that often; I guess she thought it was the thing she was supposed to do. Sometimes I wish she hadn’t started doing that, because every time I hug her I feel like she’s gotten smaller. Older.
“Hi, Mom,” I said. “This is Liam.” I gestured toward him, and he held out a hand for my mother.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. My mother touched palms with him briefly before stepping back so we could go inside.
My parents’ apartment had always been cluttered, and I tried to imagine what Liam thought of it, since he was seeing it for the first time. There were books and newspapers in Chinese stacked up on the coffee table in the middle of the living room; my father didn’t throw out his newspapers if he didn’t have to. There were a few flea market end tables pushed against the walls, upon which were knick-knacks: little jade statues, old vases painted with flowers, pictures of relatives in China that I had never met. The rug, whose pile was flat now from years of use, was freshly vacuumed but still looked wilted. In the back was the tiny kitchen, which my mother made a beeline for. She probably wasn’t finished cooking.
I slipped off my shoes and then spotted my father. He was sitting on the couch, watching a Chinese soap opera, but he turned it off when Liam and I walked into the room. He stood up and gave me a loose hug, and then shook Liam’s hand. He did not appraise Liam as my mother had, but only nodded, his face kept even in the neutral expression he typically wore.
“Hello,” my father said. He knew even less English than my mother, and I knew that he would probably not say much for the rest of the evening, since he didn’t usually speak at all. He worked as a butcher in one of the fast-paced markets in Chinatown, and sometimes I thought that he didn’t talk when he came home because he’d spent the entire day yelling.
Liam and I sat on the couch with him in silence, listening to the old wooden clock on the wall tick away the seconds.
“Ellie says you and Mrs. Chang are immigrants,” Liam said to my father, trying to make conversation. I had told Liam about how my parents had moved to America before I was born, settling in Flushing and finding jobs in Chinese-owned businesses in the area. Liam had found the story interesting, but now my father only looked at him a little quizzically, not comprehending the statement but probably not wanting to seem rude either. Liam gave him an awkward grin before both men sat back in their seats.
Liam’s fingers found mine where my hand lay on the cushion. His palms were cold and a little sweaty. I tried to give him a look of reassurance, but he was staring at the blank TV screen.
I briefly considered giving Liam a tour of the apartment, but my mother bustled back out of the kitchen a few moments later and said, “Okay. Dinner is ready.”
As we stood up and prepared to follow her into the kitchen, she made a hissing noise and pointed at Liam.
“Shoes off! By the door. No shoes in the house,” she said.
Liam turned bright red and scurried back to the door to kick off his shoes. I gave a little sigh; this was not going to be a smooth evening.
My mother had already set the table. In the middle of it were large platters containing vegetables, chicken, fish, and an entire crab. I was a little surprised; crab was reserved for special occasions, and I didn’t think that my mother would deem this special enough to buy an entire crab. It was possible that my father had convinced her, though—he took any opportunity he had to eat crab.
At the place settings, one small detail struck me: Three places were set up with a small bowl of rice, a plate, a glass of water, a napkin, and chopsticks. The fourth had a fork and knife. I could tell that Liam noticed, too, because when he sat down, he fingered the silverware, a small frown on his face. I wondered if he suspected that we rarely used it.
“So how did you meet him?” my mother asked in English, putting some fish on her plate. She was sitting across from me, and my father was sitting across from Liam. My mother clicked her chopsticks and I could tell that she was trying to refrain from being rude and pointing them at Liam.
“In school, Mom,” I said, holding back a small sigh. I had already explained this to her on the phone when she had called to tell me what time dinner would be. “He was studying political science.” My mother stared at me blankly. “How the government works,” I tried to explain.
My mother grunted, and I could tell she was trying to figure out how much worse a job as a political scientist was than a surgeon. “Any good jobs with that?” she asked. I knew that what she meant was, How high of a salary are you going to have?
“Well there are lots of different things you can go into with a political science degree,” said Liam. “There are a lot of different jobs associated with it.” My mother studied him for a moment; it was the first time he had spoken to her all evening, aside from greeting her. He looked at me a little helplessly, and I shrugged. My parents had never voted, never paid attention to the political system in the United States, and there was no good way to explain it to them.
“A lot of money?” my mother asked me in Chinese.
“Mom,” I said, warning her.
“I just want to know,” she said.
I glanced sideways at Liam, who looked like he was struggling to keep his expression neutral, even though he had no idea what my mother was saying. My dad was largely ignoring all of us and instead focused intently on his food, loudly crunching the shell of a crab leg.
“You’re a wonderful cook,” Liam said to my mother after several long moments.
My mother gave Liam a tight smile and took some chicken out of the dish.
There was a long silence filled only with chopsticks and silverware clinking against dishes, slurping noises, and the occasional loud crack of crab shell. Liam pushed scraps of food around his plate; I could tell that he was just waiting for dinner to end. I was, too.
After eating, I helped my mother clear the table while Liam and my father sat on the couch.
“He’s very quiet,” my mother said to me in Chinese while we scraped the dishes.
“You’re not exactly making it easy for him,” I said, deferring to Chinese in case Liam was listening. I dumped a dish into the sink with a loud clatter.
“Watch the dishes!” my mother said. She put hers in the sink more quietly, as if to prove her point. She reached for another dish. “Have you been having sex with him?”
“Mom!” I said, throwing my hands up in the air. “You don’t get to ask questions like that.”
“I knew you should have gone to NYU for graduate school,” she muttered. “You would never have met a boy like him there.”
I made a loud, exasperated noise. “What’s that supposed to mean, ‘a boy like him’?”
“You would have met a nice Chinese boy and been living at home and helping us, like you’re supposed to!” my mother shouted.
“NYU isn’t a church, Mom,” I snapped back. “It’s not that great. You act like it’s swarming with Asian guys and that they’re all supposed to fall at my feet and marry me.”
“Better them than someone with no prospects!” my mother said.
“Liam’s got prospects!” I said. “He’s smart and he treats me well. For once in your life, why can’t you just be happy for me? I’m not like you. I don’t want to go back to China and get some kind of arranged marriage just because you don’t like who I date.”
“Your father and I are a good match,” my mother said.
“You and Daddy don’t even talk to each other!” I exploded.
My mother’s jaw tightened and she glared at me. Her eyes were narrowed and looked darker than usual; it was the closest thing to hate I’d ever seen on her face.
“You are my daughter,” she said through gritted teeth. “You will do what I say.”
“No, Mom,” I said. “I’ve been doing that ever since I was a little kid. I’m not going to do it anymore, and I’m not going to let you try and make me. I’ve been with Liam for a year, and that’s not going to change. And I’m staying in DC.”
With that, I walked out of the kitchen and headed for the living room.
“Where do you think you’re going?” My mother was right on my heels.
“I’m leaving,” I said, spitting the words out in English. Liam jumped up from the couch. He looked jittery; he had probably heard all the yelling coming from the kitchen. I grabbed his hand.
“Let’s go,” I told him.
I didn’t have to tell him twice. We put on our shoes while my parents stood there: my dad with his hands in his pockets, silent as always, and my mother, quiet for once, but seething.
“Bye, Daddy,” I said, giving him a small hug.
As I pulled away, he grabbed my arm. Leaning a little closer to whisper in my ear, he said in his broken English, “You do what make you happy. You go to school in Washington, you live there, you love this boy? It’s okay. Your mother will be okay.”
I stepped back and stared at him, speechless, fumbling for words. “Thank you,” I finally said, not really knowing what else to say.
And then I took Liam’s hand, and we left.
That night, while Liam and I lay on an air mattress in the middle of our friends’ living room, I asked him if he was okay. We had been lying there in silence, both of us staring at the ceiling, Liam stiff and tense beside me.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m just worried about you. I didn’t want it to be this huge blow-up over me.” His eyes were dark with worry.
I shook my head. “The blow-up’s been a long time coming, to be honest. I’m kind of surprised it didn’t happen earlier.” I looked at him. “I don’t feel bad about anything that happened. Really.”
“I’m sorry,” said Liam.
“That I asked.”
It took me a minute to realize what he was referring to. Then I laughed.
“You were just trying to be a gentleman,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “and now you’re not talking to your mom.”
I shrugged. “I’m not complaining; it’s not like any of this is your fault. If it makes you feel any better, I think my dad liked you.”
Liam choked out a laugh; it sounded almost bitter. “Are you sure? He didn’t say much of anything at dinner.”
“My dad doesn’t say much to begin with,” I pointed out. “Look, don’t worry. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“If you say so,” Liam said, rolling over onto his side and lapsing into silence.
But that night, while he slept, I watched that crease reappear on his forehead, watched his eyes move rapidly behind his eyelids. I put my thumb to the line that I knew would become a wrinkle in ten or fifteen years and whispered, “It’ll be okay, I promise.”
His eyelids flickered briefly, but he remained asleep.
Kate Lu is a student at The George Washington University, where she is the editor-in-chief of The G.W. Review. Her work has previously appeared in Gone Lawn, Defenestration, and The Battered Suitcase, and is forthcoming in Ellipsis…Literature and Art.