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A quarterly international literary journal

Memory Dance

/ Nonfiction /


Slow-quick-quick. Slow-slow-quick-quick. My mother demonstrated the steps of the Foxtrot. Gently clasping my right hand with her left, her right hand on my shoulder blade, Mom guided me across the dance floor in smooth, flowing movements. Together, we stepped, side stepped, rose and fell with the big band swing music. As a child, I imagined dancing with my mother and feeling gorgeous and graceful, just like her. But in reality, she dismissed me as too chubby and uncoordinated to attempt dancing. 

My mother Ana was the top-billing dance hall girl in a popular night club in Hong Kong, patronized by wealthy men with a collection of wives and paramours. Ana captivated her customers with striking cheek bones, radiant satin complexion, large expressive eyes, sensuous lips and curvaceous body. Waltzing across the dance floor with her partner, she mesmerized with elegant spins, whirls and glides. With the jitterbug, she balanced on one foot, raised the other limb at the knee, kicked her legs high and swiveled low and sensually. 

Many patrons groped, squeezed and thrusted forward during the Foxtrot. Ana skillfully guided their hands back to a respectable position, tilting her head slightly to evade their kisses, while smiling seductively. She could not offend the patrons, whose generous tips helped fund rent, living expenses and the tuition for Gong, her seven-year-old son. Gong’s father, her abusive ex-husband had given her plenty of practice in escaping attacks. She walked a tightrope between temptress and entertainer. 

My mother left school after fifth grade when the Japanese army occupied China’s Guangdong Province in 1938. To support her single mother and younger brother, she peddled snacks on the street. When World War II erupted several years later, the three of them escaped to Macau, a neutral territory somewhat protected from Japanese barbarity. As a practical solution, she joined a convent, the only safe haven for an adolescent girl. Her mother cleaned and cooked for the nuns to earn room and board for the family. 

When the war finally ended, she left the convent to break free from a tyrannical Mother Superior. The family then made their way to Hong Kong, where Mom intended to study nursing. Romance, a miserable marriage with a philandering husband, and pregnancy shattered her aspiration. She became a dance hall girl, another practical course for a beautiful woman with no education. 

1953, Ana met my father Walter at the night club. Tap, tap, taptap, tap, tap. Her stiletto shoes clicked on the hardwood floor, echoing her heartbeat and breathing as she danced with the handsome, athletic Walter. During the tango, she embraced him closely, connecting hip to hip. Ana gazed coyly into Walter’s eyes, inviting lips parted slightly. Was she just doing her job, or was she intrigued by this middle-aged man exuding respectability, stability and worldly wisdom? Most dance hall girls ended up becoming paramours of married men or sex slaves of pimps. Single, educated and employed, Walter was a rare find. 

My father Walter was born in China in 1910 and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown since age three. His parents owned a humble Chinese restaurant on Stockton Street. Before pursuing his PhD in Engineering, Walter returned to his motherland on a one-year international fellowship. He did not foresee the outbreaks of the Sino-Japanese War and World War II and became trapped in China for over a decade. In the early 1950’s, he finally left China for the British colony of Hong Kong, employed as a film engineer by day and building his own film editing business by night. Walter loved poetry, film and tai chi.

Every evening after work, my father practiced tai chi. He shoved the two sofas, dining table and chairs to one corner of the living-dining room of our flat; the space about the size of a one-bedroom apartment in the U.S. Growing up, I loved watching Dad’s ballet of strength, propelled by inner qi. Every fluid movement evoked a story. “Part horse’s mane,” “carry tiger to mountain,” “white crane spread its wings.” One day, I wanted to be a tai chi master, just like my father. 

Ana loved western style dances, mahjong and fashion. Several times a week, while Dad was at work, she danced to the hottest hits on the radio. She reveled in the jitterbug, boogie-woogie, the Charleston and the twist. She swayed and glided to foxtrot music. Who did Mom long to dance with? I had never witnessed physical intimacy between my parents. Not a kiss, a caress, nor a dance. Captivated by her fancy footwork and exuberance, I wished I could dance with Mom. 

Silence prevailed at our family dinners, except when Dad quizzed me on my studies, or recited Tang dynasty classic poems, under the influence of the high-proof baijiu grain wine. Mom pretended to pay attention, but tried to break her boredom with neighborhood gossip.

Normally, when Dad ignored her, Mom stopped. But one night, she kept interjecting. Dad locked eyes with Mom and chastised, “Read books and your conversations would be more enlightened.”

Mom plonked down her bowl, pointed the sharp end of the chopsticks at Dad, “A robber killed my father in his grocery store in Peru. I was only three. My paternal grandfather exiled my mother, younger brother and me back to China. When the Japs invaded, I was forced to quit school. Mind you, I was a top student and star of the dance troupe. I had to camouflage my face and body with mud and dung to escape being raped by the Japs. Through it all, I survived. Don’t you dare insult me!”

Dad banged his fist on the table. “Let me eat in peace! Diu nei lo mo, chau hai! 

Throughout my childhood, I dreaded Dad’s frequent castigation of Mom, even in the presence of family and friends. I later learned from a precocious friend that “diu nei lo mo, chau hai” meant “fuck you mother, stinky whore.” I did not fully grasp the meaning but knew that Dad eviscerated Mom. Most of the time, Mom locked herself in the bedroom and cried. But that night, she threw her red slippers with peonies embroidery at Dad. 

He left the flat and did not return until the following evening. Alone on the sofa, Mom wrapped her arms around her chest and wept. Her bare feet with fuchsia-polished toenails gripped the wood floor. I set down a cup of hot tea by the sofa and resumed my homework. Like a crossed-sword dancer, I anxiously maneuvered between the shame of failing to defend my mother and the guilt of betraying loyalty to my father. 

As the years passed, the more Dad doted on me, the more Mom scorned me. For her, I was never enough. Not pretty. Not smart. Not lovable. I could not remember a compliment, a hug, a kiss from Mom. When friends lauded their mothers as best friends, I resented mine even more. 

In 1968, my father left Hong Kong to restart life in Anchorage, Alaska at the outset of the oil boom. The collapse of his own business and the unexpected birth of my younger brother Vic bankrupted him. After toiling in three jobs, Dad finally saved enough money to buy a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Anchorage called the Chinese Kitchen. He sent for the rest of our family a few years later. There were only sixty-five documented Chinese amongst an Anchorage population of over a hundred thousand. 

On our first New Year’s Eve in Alaska, I overheard Mom calling her brother in Hong Kong. “I miss you and Hong Kong’s vitality. I’m only forty-four. How many more years of this grim hinterland can I endure?” 

After the call, she removed from her bedroom closet half a dozen Chinese qipao  dresses hand-made by her favorite tailor in Hong Kong. She displayed them on the bed, ran her right palm over the silk, brocade and velvet garments in golden yellow, vermillion and Han purple. She traced her index finger down the hand stitched piping around the edges of the collars and sleeves. Her fingers stumbled on the ornate pankou knots adorning the Mandarin collars which she began fastening and unfastening as sobs shook her. Reaching for an empty suitcase from the closet’s top shelf, she shuttered the exquisite dresses one by one. Only hideous shapeless parkas, flannel shirts and sweatpants were left hanging in the closet. 

During my first winter in Anchorage, I, too, learned that rhinestone dresses, black satin sheaths and dripping diamonds were just an American dream. The reality was to feel my nose, ears, toes and fingers tingle and burn as I walked between home and school in the arctic blizzards. The reality was being the only Chinese amidst two thousand high school students. Feeling like a freak with no friends and no English, I knew that my only salvation was admission to a university in the lower forty-eight. 

The moment I landed a full four-year scholarship to a college in California, I left Anchorage, determined never to return. Mom reprimanded me for selfishly abandoning our family in Alaska. I was hurt and perplexed. Why did she rebuke my emancipation from a place she also yearned to flee?

Throughout my mid-twenties, Mom harangued me on our daily calls the misery of being shengnu, a “leftover woman.” Modern Chinese society stigmatizes a female unmarried by age twenty-seven as “leftover.” I ignored her rants by doing work emails.

On one call, when I told her about breaking-up with my Chinese doctor boyfriend, she screamed on the other end, “Another failed relationship! You’re behaving like a whore, drifting from man to man.” I was too angry and distressed to explain that my boyfriend was cheating on me. 

After toiling for over twenty years, my parents finally saved up a modest nest egg for retirement. The single luxury they splurged on was a diesel Mercedes-Benz, a car they dreamed of owning in Hong Kong. My parents never explored Alaska in their Mercedes. A couple of years after retirement, Dad almost died from a botched surgery and lost communication and ambulatory abilities. Reluctant to care for a disabled invalid, Mom asked me to explore nursing homes in Anchorage. When I entered the lobby of the first facility, the putrid odor of human decay suffocated me. Everywhere I turned, lifeless gazes followed me from cadaverous men and women, strapped to wheelchairs, heads cocked limply to one side. One rolled her wheelchair towards me and gripped my hand, “Get me out of here,” she gasped. 

Enraged that my mother considered discarding her spouse in this living-hell, I unilaterally decided to relocate my parents from Anchorage to San Francisco, where Vic lived and worked. I manipulated Mom’s guilt and sense of honor. “You and health aids will care for Dad at home. It’ll look really bad for you to abandon your husband of so many years.” She nodded in tearful silence, but I knew she would not forgive me for this life sentence of mercy.

In San Francisco, my parents settled in a two-bedroom apartment, rigged up with a hospital-grade bed and requisite medical equipment. The more Dad disintegrated, the more Mom regenerated. For the first time since emigrating to America, she took English lessons, wrote checks, learned how to take the bus, and even headed the social committee of a local Catholic church. Dad was agnostic his entire life. Not only did Mom convert her incapacitated husband to Catholicism, but also, renewed their marriage vows in church. 

In 2001, Dad was rushed into the ICU again. For a fortnight, Mom, Vic and I kept vigil day and night in the hospital, helplessly watching Dad gasp beneath the ventilator. When the physician finally asked, I deferred to Mom’s decision to legally remove the ventilator. Standing silently by Dad’s hospital bed, Mom clasped my hand tightly. I felt her dry, chafed skin and the swollen ridges of her arthritic fingers. For the first time, I felt that she did care for her husband. 

Mom suffered progressive dementia beginning in her late seventies. When the California Pacific Medical Center doctors scheduled an interview to assess her condition, she insisted that I travel across the country to be her English interpreter. Dependency was a weapon to control her children.

I responded to the lead doctor’s general assessment questions until he asked about Mom’s early life in Hong Kong. When I pressed her for information I didn’t have, she responded, “I don’t remember.” 

It was one chance to force my mother to reveal her early life concealed by reticence. Growing up, I occasionally uncovered random clues by eavesdropping on her mahjong games, or collected tidbits carelessly shared by friends. I learned that her close friends then were all concubines and Mom prided herself for being legitimately married. I eventually figured out that when the neighborhood bullies taunted my half-brother Gong as a “sampan kid,” they were insulting him with the Cantonese slang for a bastard child of a woman who floated from man to man. 

Like opening up the nested Chinese box, one secret led to more bewildering secrets. 

At a recent reunion, a childhood friend from Hong Kong confided that his father was one of Mom’s regular patrons at the dance hall. I was mortified that a friend knew about her unsavory past, and incensed by discovering yet another secret. My mind drifted back to unsettling childhood memories of men on the street eyeing Mom salaciously, or wolf-whistling when she sashayed by. 

I insisted, “Tell the Doc about your life in Hong Kong.” 

“I don’t remember.” Mom tried to deflect, “Tell that nosy Doc that I was a nurse.”

Agitated, I quipped in Cantonese, “You were not a nurse. You were a mou neoi!” 

“Nonsense! I studied nursing, but ran out of money!” She sounded angry, but her eyes showed fear.

Like a tribal warrior in a combat dance, a dark force possessed me, pouncing and whirling inside. At that moment, the lifelong anguish for feeling unworthy and unloved by my mother gushed out like a torrent. I wanted to pulverize her dignity, just as she had shattered mine. 

I answered the Doc in English. “My mother was a mou neoi. She was an in-demand dance hall girl in Hong Kong. Her job was to dance, drink and entertain men.” Thirsty for blood, I repeated my response in Cantonese. 

Mom was silent during the taxi ride back to her apartment after the medical evaluation. When we arrived, she looked straight at me, “I needed to support my family, but could not find a job. Being a mou neoi was a practical thing to do.” 

She opened the car door, then paused. “I seduced men, but I was never a whore.” 

Mom slammed the door and disappeared into the shadows. 

A year later, Vic and I decided to move Mom to Aegis Gardens in Fremont, California, the only Chinese-speaking assisted living community for residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Mom resisted fiercely. Even on the morning of the moving van’s arrival, she dumped the contents out of the packed cartons, stomped her feet and wailed in front of the movers. 

During the first six months at Aegis, Mom called hourly to protest against staff mistreatment and even threatened suicide. Then suddenly, the calls stopped. The Aegis Director reported that Mom was doing splendidly and was simply preoccupied with dating. Her first boyfriend was a resident at Aegis’ Alzheimer’s care wing, a former Singapore Airlines captain and ballroom dancing champion. Another year passed, Mom captivated a second boyfriend, a former IBM computer scientist and also a dancing champion. She gave her new beau a photo of herself as a stunning eighteen-year-old. “I love this woman!” exclaimed Mr. IBM, pointing at the photo. Did he fall in love with the woman or her photo? Was memory loss the accidental matchmaker? Did the truth matter?

Watching my mother and Mr. IBM dancing cheek to cheek at the holiday party, I was comforted that she finally reclaimed the affection and bliss missing in her marriage, missing in my own marriage. 

Mom rejected my husband right from the start. She nicknamed him mo gwai, “the demon,” because he was not Catholic, twice divorced and twenty-eight years my senior. The more Mom disapproved, the more I dug in to prove that she was wrong. But deep inside, I was apprehensive of my husband’s reputation as a philanderer. Love was blind, but pride was more blinding. 

In February 2013, the night preceding Chinese New Year’s Eve, Mom called me. As usual, I browsed online news and paid little attention. 

“You should leave your mo gwai husband,” her words startled me. I turned off the speaker mode, held the phone close to my ears and listened.

“Vic told me that he beats you and cheats on you. You are smart, beautiful and deserve much more.”

My mother’s first ever compliment confounded and consoled me.

“But Mom, the Chinese community and Catholic church disdain divorcees.”

“Who cares about the bigoted idiots. You have suffered enough. Kick him out!”

I was scheduled to fly to San Francisco the following day to celebrate Chinese New Year with my family. In the past, I dreaded visits with Mom and our inevitable arguments. But that night after the call, I wondered how it would feel to confide in my mother, just like a best friend. 

The next day, upon disembarking at the San Francisco Airport, Vic called me, “Horrific news!” His words were broken by sobs. “This morning, an Aegis staff discovered Mom not breathing, face flat on the floor of her apartment. She seemed to have tripped over the portable clothes rack and was killed by the impact of the fall. She might have expired late last night.” 

I could not stop imagining Mom’s anguished face, with black and blue bruises, blood caked around her mouth, fearful eyes open, surrounded by lavish dance ensembles in lace, mesh, chiffon and sequin, and different open and closed-toes stilettos. I was distraught that she died alone. 

Instead of celebrating the Year of the Snake, we organized a funeral.

Two days after returning to Connecticut from Mom’s funeral, I filed for divorce. Her death and our last conversation somehow unshackled me from the shame of a failed marriage, and emboldened me to take back my life. 

The legal ordeal of the divorce dragged on for two years. Every night, I lay awake in the darkness, unable to erase the memory of that scorching summer afternoon when I had come home too early and intruded onto my husband and his semi-nude paramour by the pool. Traumatized, I had screamed, “Help me! Help me!” 

A neighbor summoned the police, who arrested me for domestic violence. My husband falsely charged that I assaulted him, and lied that his paramour screamed for help. I was forced out of my home of over two decades; a home that I solely paid for. Overwrought with court trials and mounting legal bills, I suffered PTSD symptoms and lost most of my eyelashes and eyebrows. 

Friends convinced me to join a local gym, work out and sign up for Zumba. After years of Mom’s censure, I was too ashamed of my gawky body to dance until the Zumba enthusiasts motivated me. They came in all ages and shapes: from twenty to eighty; plump, slender, voluptuous, flat-chested; several bald cancer survivors. I pulsated and shimmied to salsa, reggaeton, merengue, K-pop and Bollywood music. For the first time, I felt a bit like Mom; beautiful, sexy and ready to enchant the world.

A tall skinny woman with short, drab hair showed up at Zumba class one Saturday morning. Her flannel plaid shirt and brown corduroy pants were eye sores among the tightest, brightest Lululemon favored by fitness fans. She tapped clumsily on the floor; one foot first, then the other. Suddenly, she shuffled across the crowded room and back, forcing other dancers from their spots. Irritated, I tugged her arm and complained, “Hey, lady, please stay in one place.”

Looking flustered, she murmured, “I’m sorry. I’m no good at this. I have Alzheimer’s.” I felt like an ass. That was the first time I met Sarah, in Zumba class 2017.

As we exited the dance room, I asked Sarah about her family. Panic shrouded her dark brown eyes as she tried to recall, “Hmm… a brother in Italy…two daughters…but don’t remember their names. One lives in Japan. The other lives…hmm…there are lots of young people, it’s in New York.” 

“Brooklyn?” I surmised. 

Her eyes lit up, “Yes! But she never visits.”

After our first encounter, I gradually became Sarah’s Zumba buddy. I danced close to her to guard her spot, served her water between numbers, hunted for her pink gym bag which was regular misplaced. She mouthed the words when we danced to “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Amazed that she remembered the lyrics, we sang out loud together. 

I took Sarah home after dance classes and invited her and her husband for Thanksgiving. From Sarah’s disjointed utterances, unfinished sentences, and conversations with her husband, I pieced together her past and present. She was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years earlier. Her husband retired as an IBM programmer, sold their house, moved to our town to be close to a memory care center. Zumba, ballroom dancing and music helped slow down Alzheimer’s. Watching Sarah dancing with her husband, I teared up remembering how Mom swept across the Aegis dance floor with her IBM beau.  

Dr. Oliver Sacks noted that people with Alzheimer’s remember emotions. They may not remember most names, but they remember the names of people who they feel care about them. In one Zumba class, I took Sarah’s hands while swaying to a bachata number. “Turn,” she laughed and spun me around. When I stopped, the dancer next to me took over. When she stopped, another woman took over. After class, Sarah kissed me on one cheek, “Lixian, you’re my angel.” 

As time passed, Sarah forgot how to access the main entrance to her high-rise building. She stared with befuddlement at the key fob. She could not remember how to ride the elevator and unlock her condo’s door. Several times, she was found lost on nearby streets. I tried to ignore that any day could be her last Zumba day.

During COVID lockdown, Zumba, ballroom dancing and social interactions shut down for Sarah. So did her mind, body and spirit. Her husband invited me to stroll outdoors with her; something I intended to do. 

I did not walk with Sarah. She passed away at home in November 2020. Through her obituary, I discovered fragments of her life and the names of people she could not remember. It is only in my heart and memory that I can hold Sarah’s hands and spin her around.

The night after Sarah’s Zoom memorial service, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mom’s death years earlier. I had a tough time composing her obituary and asked the Aegis Director for suggestions. 

She told me, “Your mother was beautiful inside and outside. Her kindness and vitality inspired the other residents and staff. She loved to dance, and dancing was so good for dementia. She often told me how she would love to dance with you. Lixian, your mother always remembered your name.”

When sorting through Mom’s possessions, I came across my parents’ marriage certificate and my Hong Kong birth certificate. For the first time in my life, I discovered that I was born out of wedlock. Did my mother marry to shield her baby girl from the shame of being a “sampan kid”? Did my father offer the paternal mooring that she had lost and craved? Was it a marriage of love or honor? But did it matter? What mattered was she fulfilled her mission of mercy with fortitude.

My mother endured a life of stoic reticence. Was silence the scalpel to remove anguish and horror from her memory? Was aphasia about people and events the prescription for survival? 

Throughout the years, I have navigated through solid ground and quicksand, love and betrayal. Like my mother, I shall prevail with dignity. 

I wish I had the last dance with my mother. I wish I could hold her, step, side step and glide across lost time and space. 

I wish she and I could sing out loud, to unlock her unspoken dreams, passions and truths.

I did not.

I wish my mother had told me that she loved me.

She did not.

But does it matter? What matters is my mother always remembered my name.


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