Kavad: Mother Tongues
Xiao Xian Mai / Betty Chen




Xiao Xian Mai

I was happy to be able to sit down with my daughter and be given a space where I could share with her my history. We do not normally have such conversations and I had thought that if we were to have such a conversation, it would be in the future, and not so soon. Nonetheless, I was glad to know that she was interested in learning more about me. 


Betty Chen

She never liked to recall her history of immigrating here. The place she left behind.  Well, at least that was how it seemed to me. As I asked her question after question, she answered with short "Yes's" and "No's." I thought to myself, I needed more information if I were going to create a poem chronicling your journey. I continued to inquire and as I continued to pursue the specificities of one topic, my mother began to open up. She revealed to me that America was her home. That the place she left was a distant truth. I realized that this first-generation American guilt that I had felt my whole life wouldn't be the end of the world if I didn't achieve it. My mother was staying for herself. Not for me. And that was all I needed to hear.


Interview Excerpt

On that day that you left Toisan, how did you feel? Were you happy?

Yes, I was happy. As I left from Toisan to Guangzhou on car, I thought to myself, "Here's an opportunity for me to go to America and see what all my neighbors had been speaking about when they came back to visit." Of course I was happy.

Could you sleep the day before?

There was a bit of tossing and turning.

Based off of what you heard about America, what did you think you would do and become of in America?

Before I came to America, people said that women oftentimes worked in textile factories and men oftentimes worked in restaurants. Therefore, when I first arrived in America, I had to work in a textile factory. 

So you didn't think of any other professions?

No, I didn't think of any other professions.

Did you plan on pursuing higher education when you arrived?

When I came to America, I had wanted to go to school. However, I also wanted to work and earn money. Thus, I chose work over school since it was easier to earn money back then. 

Why didn't you simultaneously go to school and work?

Oh, I hadn't thought of doing such back then. I had cared more for working. My thinking was that I could continue working and didn't have to go to school. 

If you hadn't worked and only your parents worked, would that have been enough for the family? 

If we only relied on them, then that would have been burdensome on them as well. Back then, they weren't as young anymore and when we arrived, we [the kids] decided to go out and find work. 

Do you regret not going to school?

I do partially regret not going to school. However, these decisions are made and chosen by the person. If I were to go back to school now, I would be too old. My American dream was not so much for the money but just to get married and raise a family. So in that sense, I do believe I have obtained the American Dream. 



Betty's poem for Xiao


Minute Seeds, Minute Dreams

Return to me
my mother in her teens,
hovered over the sink alongside her own bearer,
both laboriously scouring the clothes of a family of 11,
as if each scrub of the oil-stained white shirt
represented a cleansing of the:
barren road stretched miles long;
sweltering heat and debris-filled air;
familial line of paddy-rice workers (a poor person’s work?).

Return to me the day
that my mother sat sweatily hunched over her desk.
The day she took her placement exam in pursuit of higher education.
As she marked each problem with ease,
she knew that this moment would be washed away
like the fresh footprints
before the imminent tidal waves.

Her mother needed her in the rice paddies.
With boots up to her lanky knees
And her back arched over
as if it were the bending of a wooden bamboo stick,
she trudged through the viscous waters.

Gazing around at the scattered clumps of grass amiss the pool of liquid,
she threw a handful of minute seeds
hoping that this draw of luck would be better than the last.

As she saw her reflection in the glistening pool,
she thought to herself,
“Return to me not.”