My mother broke herself into so many pieces that when she glued herself back together there were some shards she would never find. One day, she decided to stop trying to fix herself and focus her attention on shaping someone else. So she adopted a baby from China. She would mold this child into a better, undamaged version of herself. This is what mothers do to their children—they sculpt them a certain way, not always aware that these precious statues are actually alive.
I am twenty-one, sharing a New York Times article about Young Jean Lee, the first female Asian American playwright on Broadway. I write as the Facebook caption, “It’s crazy that the first play by an Asian-American woman is only now just making it to Broadway. I’m extremely happy, proud, and grateful this is finally happening. Broadway needs more plays by Asian-Americans and about Asian-Americans. One day, I hope to see one of her plays.”
Two minutes later, my mom calls. “Honey, I saw your post.”
“You need to be careful what you’re sharing online. You need to be a witness for Christ.” She sounded like she was about to cry.
“What are you talking about, Mom? I just posted about an Asian American writer.”
“You shouldn’t concern yourself with the social issues of today. You need to focus on Jesus and heaven. In heaven, we won’t have any of these problems.”
I press my cheek with my hand as if it’s a button to make sure I’m still in real life.
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t care about social issues?”
“Yes, it’s silly compared to the things of God!”
I shake my head as I say goodbye. I turn over in my boyfriend’s bed to face him. I ask if he heard all of that.
“Lili, I think my roommates in the other room heard her.” Mark says. “That’s crazy what she’s saying.”
“It is, but honestly, I shouldn’t be too surprised. It’s just like her.”
“To believe that, you mean?”
I start kissing him, half wishing my mom could see this scene of passion that she would call “sin,” even though Mark and I only knew how to make out at this point.
“To believe that, yes. But also to lecture me about it like I did the worst thing in the world,” I replied as I climbed on top of him to get a better taste of his lips. The more we kissed, the more I could feel the clay that my mother slabbed on my face years ago being washed away.
I am seventeen. I am teaching myself how to properly apply makeup because I perform in dances and plays. I don’t wear makeup any other time. I never think to.
I am sitting on my bed, watching YouTube makeup tutorials.
My mom comes in.
“You need to start wearing makeup, Lili.” She had been mentioning makeup to me off and on for the past year, offering to buy me whatever beauty product I wanted, showing me how she did her own natural makeup with products made out of fruit extract.
I hit pause. “I do wear makeup for the performances. I’m even watching stuff right now to teach me how to do it better—”
“No! You need to start wearing some every day!” She says before I can even show her the makeup video I was watching.
“What? Uh, why?”
“Because, that’s what women do! Society won’t accept you if you don’t.”
“Every day? So eyeliner and concealer?” I ask, thinking of the two things I actually knew how to apply.
“Those and blush. lipstick. And eyeshadow.”
I shut my laptop off. “That sounds like too much work. I’m not doing that.”
“Yes, you are! Don’t argue with your mother!”
Before I can blink, I find myself at Sephora with my mother. She buys me a $52 eyeshadow palette and a $23 mascara. She gives me some organic, made-from-weird-plants blush and lipstick she bought but never used. She tells me what to do, and I obey for three years. For three years, I wake up extra early each day to apply my makeup exactly the way my mother instructed me to. This is the start of her allowing her statue to preserve itself with the materials she has provided.
I preserve my face, my mother’s work of art, exactly the way she wants for years. The outside is all she cares about; it doesn’t matter that on the inside I am made of fragments—patched from my mother’s theology and self-help books. I am a brittle paper-mâché that breaks a little each day from the weight of the foundation and color on my body.
Then one day, when I am twenty—all of the bits inside me fall out through the cracks of my exterior. It is as if my body suddenly realizes it is a body and not someone’s work of art. I am now hollow bones and open flesh, yet I have never felt so whole, so complete.
When I am twelve, my mother gives me The Talk: the period and sex talk. But it is mostly about periods—no, it is only about periods. Periods and dressing modestly and how God blessed the female body to bear children.
A few months pass, and I am reading a book whose story I can no longer remember. The book uses the word “orgasmic” to describe a woman’s experience with yoga.
While riding in the car, I ask, “Mom, what does ‘orgasmic’ mean?”
She almost stops driving. “Where did you hear that?”
“It was in the book I’m reading. She used it to describe yoga.”
“Well, stop reading that book, and don’t say that word again.”
“It’s not a word you say out loud.”
“Is it a bad word?”
“Well…no. It’s just a private word. Okay? So don’t say it.”
When we get home, I secretly Google the word and find its root word is “orgasm.” I learn about orgasms through Wikipedia and other Wikipedia-like articles that define orgasms and how they work. I don’t want videos of sex or articles on “how to achieve your greatest orgasm.” No, I just want the facts, the technical details, because I am not being told these facts by my own mother.
Wikipedia teaches me that orgasms are wonderful and powerful and natural.
When my mother gave me The Talk, she said sex was a beautiful and sacred thing created by God for married couples and nothing else. If married couples have sex, they should have orgasms too, right? So why is this word and subject so taboo? If God created sex, why can’t we talk about it? If God created orgasms, shouldn’t we celebrate them? I’m only twelve, but aren’t these things I should know?
My mom is so distracted with turning her sculpture more and more into herself; she doesn’t notice that through her silencing of these “private matters” I am given the freedom to learn independently that sex and orgasms are not shameful. They are natural, instinctual, created by God himself for his people to love one another.
I am eight, and I know exactly what I want to do with my life. I want to be a third-grade teacher. I tell this to everyone I meet.
My mom tells me, “That’s great that you want to be that, but you know being a stay-at-home mom is good too.”
“I can be a mommy too!”
“Honey, you can, but it’s not good for the children. If you’re at work, who’s going to take care of them?”
“Why can’t I be both?”
“I’m saying that it’s our job as women to submit to our husbands and take care of children. God made men the providers and heads of the household. See your dad and me? He goes to work and works so hard. I am at home to take care and teach you and Luke. When he comes home, I make sure he has dinner so he can just relax from his hard day at work. That’s what you’ll be doing when you get married!”
I glare at her. “If I get married.” I have a bad habit of always threatening to do the opposite of what the adults say.
“Oh, Lili! You’ll definitely get married. You’re going to be such a beautiful young lady. You’ll find a nice Christian boy who will lead your household with God’s word.”
Sometimes, I think of her and my father and how their marriage is like a constant competition of alpha dogs. My father would make a decision for the family, and my mother would pester and pester him until he gave in to what she wanted. My father goes to work, but my mother has more money than him from the money her uncle left her. I never think of my childhood home as my father’s home. It has always been my mother’s home. Her art studio: and I am her star subject.
I am now twenty-three and almost married. Mark and I agree that if either of us decide to stay home with future children it would probably be him because it fits his personality more. Mark and I are equals in everything.
It makes my mom nervous when she sees Mark and me in the kitchen, cooking together because she sees that her statue is now walking on her own.
I am five. I read children’s books that explain adoption. Sometimes, my mom reads them to me. Sometimes, I look at the pictures on my own. My favorite, I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, is about a white American mother who adopts a girl from China.
After reading about or talking about being adopted and how there is China’s One Child Policy and how my birth mother had to give me up and how I was placed on a street corner until a police officer found me and how I was called Lou Zhi in the orphanage because they did not know my real name.
After all of that, my mother tells me, “You might be adopted, but I see you as if you came from my own womb. I prayed so hard on the day you were picked for us. You were meant to be with us. You were a part of God’s plan. And look at you. You even look like me even though you’re not from me! You have dark hair and olive skin like me!”
She goes on to tell me how she couldn’t have babies of her own because of her more than ten years’ battle with anorexia. She says that my birth mother must have loved me because I was as healthy as could be. She says it doesn’t matter where I come from because I am hers and hers alone. She fills my head with sweet lies. They embrace my entire body as I stand still in my mother’s museum. I will believe them for over a decade.
I am eighteen and suddenly I feel different. I am in college and work part-time, and people are treating me like I do not come from a white family because they don’t know my family. They only know me.
They know who I am before I ever do.
I am not white. I look in the mirror and repeat that statement over and over again. It’s like indoctrinating myself to believe what has been true all along. It’s like seeing myself as something different, something separate, from my mother for the first time. It’s like seeing my own face for the first time underneath all of this clay.
I don’t bother telling my mother this revelation. She doesn’t and wouldn’t understand. My mother raised me to be white. She raised me to be her. She sculpted me from her own reflection in the mirror, ignoring my howls as she kept plastering my body with white clay.
Lili Louzhi holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University. Her writing gravitates toward the themes of fixations, myth versus reality, adoption, Asian American identity, trauma/abuse, and healing/progress. Her work can also be found in Norfolk’s Poetry on the Pavement project. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and works at Maryland Carey School of Law. She also teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.