My mother, who is 56 years old and, in my opinion, looks her age, went to China a few weeks ago to visit her dying mother. Waipo, as I call my maternal grandmother, has a severe case of Alzheimer’s combined with old age, so a typical morning would go something like this:
My mother (shakes Waipo gently): Morning, Ma.
Waipo: opens eyes and stares at my mother without recognition
My mother: Do you know who I am?
My mother: I’m Ting. I’m your daughter.
Waipo (beams and touches my mother’s face): Ting! I’m so happy you’re here.
My mother leaves the room and returns a few minutes later with breakfast.
My mother: Hey, Ma. I made you some breakfast.
Waipo: stares at my mother and the food
My mother: Do you recognize me?
My mother: I’m Ting, your daughter.
Waipo (beaming): Ting! You’re here.
And so on. This routine worked pretty well until one day, Waipo woke up, gave my mother a cunning look, and said, “I figured it out. You’re not Ting.”
“How do you know?” asked my mother.
“Ting is my little daughter,” Waipo said, summoning her sternest I-will-not-be-fooled expression. “And you–you are an old lady.”
My mother chalked this up to Waipo’s obvious senility and had a good laugh with her siblings. A few days later, she went clothes shopping for me at a hip new store for young women in Chengdu, where the twenty-something salesgirls looked her up and down before turning to more age-appropriate customers.
One salesgirl, deigning politeness, approached my mother and said in her most respectful tone, “Hello Granny, are you shopping for your granddaughter?”
My mother looked at the girl and laughed. She laughed so hard that she had to leave the store and squat in a nearby alley where she could laugh without interruption.
When I told the Boyfriend about this, he was surprised that my mother did not feel insulted. After all, any self-respecting Western woman would have wept, reported the salesgirl, and booked botox appointments for a year. I felt surprised as well until I remembered that this was a woman who, two years ago, had giggled for days when I told her she had gained so much weight she looked like an overstuffed dumpling and her face was puffy as a plum. (In reality, she wasn’t nearly as fat as I made her sound.) This was, in American feminist parlance, a liberated woman whose self-esteem was unaffected by patriarchal aesthetics. I like to think she became this way because she has the satisfaction of a comfortable, middle-class life, knowing that her youthful beauty has been passed on to her daughter.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mother, a woman unhindered by misogyny, vanity, or self-respect.