As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
When I was thirteen, two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to the house to follow up on a conversation from the week before with my mother.
“Mormons,” I whispered into the telephone to my friend Jenny, and we giggled at how exotic the word sounded. Jenny said she wished she could come over, because she had “never seen a real Mormon before” and wanted to find out if they really had to wear special underwear like she had seen in a movie.
“My mom said only mei guo ren can be Mormons,” Jenny said, using the word for “white American people” in Chinese. “Why are they talking to you guys anyway?”
“Who knows,” I said, and promised to report back.
Both missionaries were young and very handsome, dressed in crisp white shirts and black dress pants. Their shoes were buffed and shiny. One of them, the blond one, stirred up in me distinctly sexual feelings that made me blush and touch my face. His hair was parted neatly off to the side and slicked down with gel, and his nose was dusted with youthful freckles. I thought he could have been the sixth member of NSYNC, or any of the other American boy bands Jenny and I used to listen to together, cross-legged on her bedroom floor passing the cassette case back and forth, only months ago, before my parents and I moved to suburban Minnesota. The missionaries had brought with them a copy of the church’s welcome video on VHS, which was to be screened in the living room.
My father fluttered around the men with a manic, subservient energy while preparing tea, and this annoyed me. It reminded me of when my mother would cook her famous Shandong egg-and-tomato stew, and my father would always complain that it was too salty until my mother gave him one of her looks. It conveyed something like “this is how I make it and we both know you can’t cook anyway so shut up and eat it.” It was true, my father couldn’t cook, and after being silently chastised he would switch to blind flattery and over-the-top lip smacking to show my mother he was sorry. On those nights he always did the dishes himself, whistling while he worked to show he didn’t mind. After two decades of marriage, it was their system, but what did he have to apologize to these missionaries for?
The two young men stood in the doorway for a long time and could not decide if they should take off their shoes, and this made them seem even more boyish and attractive. Both of them looked up distractedly at the wall-sized Chinese fan my mother had displayed prominently in the foyer to impress visitors and offered vague sounds of appreciation. From where I was standing, it looked as if the two missionaries were set within the fan’s sprawling hand-painted landscape—a wild mountain scene done in watercolor. A red-crowned river crane bent toward the water next to them, and a fiery orange phoenix hovered overhead with wings outstretched. A tiger looked out from behind a lush grove of bamboo. I was amused at the sight of the missionaries lost deep within the Chinese mountains, still wearing their shiny black shoes and backpacks, clutching twin Books of Mormon and unable to ask for directions. Terribly out of place.
The painting on the fan was of a China that didn’t exist anymore, and I knew this because my mother was fond of reminding me. “The factories replaced the fields, and all the towns became cities,” she liked to say. “The schoolhouse where your father and I first met is a KFC now! When we go back there we are like tourists. We don’t know where anything is and have to ask for directions because everything has been torn down and replaced.”
I had heard my mother talk like this a thousand times, and Jenny even liked to tease that my parents’ style of child-rearing was to tell long-winded stories about China until I was so bored I freely chose to go finish my homework rather than stay and hear another. Jenny said this was probably why I got such good grades, just like my mother famously did. When my parents first started dating, they were sixteen and just graduating from a rural Chinese high school where my mother had been ranked Number One Best Student, and my father had been Number Two.
“He always thought he could do better on the next test and beat me, but he never did!” my mother also liked to say.
She gave the missionaries some house slippers to wear, both pairs embroidered with delicate orange chrysanthemums, ending their initial indecision about shoes. We all gathered in the living room. My father was pouring tea, making an elaborate production of serving it to the visitors, and this gave me the impression, yet again, that there was something important about the missionaries I didn’t understand. My father was not in the habit of trying to impress anyone unless they were a white supervisor at work or a family friend whose kid had already been accepted to law or medical school. With white supervisors, he explained that it was just a necessity: “Do whatever they say in the office, but they can’t stop you from making fun of them when you get home!” With family friends, there was always the understanding that I would eventually attend the most prestigious of institutions in the most prestigious of fields. My father knew it was only a matter of time until he was the one with much to brag about.
Elder Johnson, the blond missionary, who had also been the one to correct my mother when she remarked upon how interesting a coincidence it was that both young men should be named Elder (“No ma’am, we all take the name Elder when we begin our mission years”), thanked my father earnestly for the tea and brought the teacup halfway to his lips before he paused.
“Does this contain caffeine?” he asked.
“Yes but just a little bit,” said my father. “Is that okay?”
I felt a familiar panic run through my body, because I sensed that Elder Johnson was preparing to either admonish my father or explain something to him. It was the same way I always braced myself at the grocery store checkout counter when my father misunderstood a question (“Paper or plastic?”) or when I noticed a coworker slowing down a story for my father’s benefit. In those moments, I felt myself called forward to mediate in a way that humiliated me, a responsibility I didn’t ask for and didn’t want but would perform obediently nonetheless.
Elder Johnson had a look of grave concern on this face, but he apologized to my father for not asking about the tea earlier. Elder Richards jumped in to explain.
“Caffeine is a drug,” he said, “and part of the teachings of the Mormon Church is to choose a drug-free lifestyle. We don’t drink tea, coffee, or alcohol when we join the Church.”
My mother, who was above all a polite woman, nodded understandably as if to convey yes, of course, we too disagree with the serving of tea!
But what she said was “Yes, we also do not drink coffee!” pronouncing coffee as “ka-fay,” the Chinese transliteration of coffee. “Too much caffeine for us, we just drink a little green tea every day, it’s healthy and good for you, please try it!”
The look on Elder Johnson’s face was now close to pained, though not unkind, and he listened to my mother’s insistence patiently. I placed my hands on either side of my chair, prepared to interrupt if necessary. At the grocery store my job was to chime in sweetly, in perfect English, to agree that “Yes, plastic bags are fine, thank you,” and at social gatherings of predominantly white people I stood next to my parents, head turned slightly toward my mother’s ear, to translate any unfamiliar colloquialisms that arose during conversation:
“He said his wife leads a 4H Club. It’s a club for kids or farmers or something.”
“The Y is the YMCA. It’s where we went swimming last week.”
“I don’t know what baklava is either.”
Neither the missionaries nor my parents spoke for several seconds, and the air in the room became uncomfortable. Finally, my father said, “Of course, it’s no problem. I am so sorry!” and looked at my mother, who for all her politeness was still absentmindedly sipping at her teacup while nodding in agreement. A look that was new to me passed between them, one which stung me in its illegibility; my father seemed to look at my mother with great emphasis, almost pleading, and my mother received it with sudden urgency. She set down her teacup and rose to clear the table of cups and saucers. The missionaries rose halfway out of their seats in tandem, as if to indicate that it was not necessary to completely remove the tea from sight, but did not protest further.
My mother had been having a hard time meeting other Chinese people. She understood, of course, that the missionaries believed we were a nice family interested in joining the church ourselves, and she knew it was wrong to lead them on like this, but the prospect of meeting new Chinese friends was too enticing to resist. We had seen them, a Chinese person here or there, walking their dog around the cul-de-sac, or setting up a sprinkler toy on the front lawn for their kids to play in. We knew they existed here, just like us, in the whitest suburb of a Midwestern cluster of extremely white suburbs. My mother had also been asked “So, what church do you go to?” enough times since we’d moved to know that church membership was not just popular in the area but practically required, and to her the choice of church affiliation was all the same.
“The Chinese people here probably go to a church! Let’s just pick one and go!”
These occasional sightings of Chinese people, without opportunity to attempt an introduction, had begun to taunt her. Once, in the Asian Flavors aisle of Wegmans, my mother saw a Chinese woman with her teenage son picking out bok choy. She hissed at me “Go over there and say hi to the son! It will be okay. Just say you want to introduce yourself!” while nudging me sharply in the side. “Kids can go say hi to other kids. It’s not weird!”
But the moment quickly passed; the woman and her son moved on with their produce, and my mother sighed a deep sigh.
By the time Elder Johnson and Elder Richards had come to our door and asked my mother “Are you and your family interested in the teachings of the Mormon faith?” she had nodded, surprised by her good fortune. The men were kind, and said things like “Pardon?” to my mother when she confused a phrase or inverted a sentence, then listened again until they understood one another. At times, Elder Johnson spoke rapidly without stopping to ask her if she comprehended, which made my mother feel as though she’d been a native speaker all her life, conversing with ease with the sweet young men.
“It was actually one of our members, Dong, who let us know that you guys were new in town and that we should come by and say hello!” Elder Johnson had said.
That had sealed the deal for my mother.
“Dong is a Mormon!” she exclaimed that night as we chopped vegetables for hot pot, looking around to confirm that we understood this meant her theory was correct. All the Chinese people here were in church, and that was where we too would have to go.
I thought it was strange that my father’s new friend Dong, his only friend since we’d moved, never thought to tell us that he was Mormon. Many afternoons he had brought over fresh cucumber and cilantro from his garden, and played a weekly badminton game with my father. They had recently sat together in our living room, the two men reminiscing together about Chinese middle schools where the teachers were so mean that any small offense could earn you a Wap! on the arm with a ruler. Not once did Dong bring it up.
He had even complimented my mother’s jade statue of Guan Yin on the mantle. How did he know about Guan Yin? Why would he be so strange as to mention us to the missionaries, and not the other way around? But there was no questioning my mother, once her mind had been made up.
“Dong is trying to help us!” my mother had said. “Be nice to them. And say you are interested in Jesus!”
• • •
In the living room, the two missionaries answered my mother’s litany of questions with patience and an uncanny rhythm, one Elder picking up where the other left off, offering testimony about the Church while my mother’s eyes shone with interest. I picked at my fingernails silently on the couch, unsure of what to say but increasingly taken by Elder Johnson’s animated stories. He had met his best friends through the Church! He had found an irreplaceable community of friends and neighbors! His social calendar had exploded! My mother’s expression swung wildly between envy and admiration.
“What kind of activity for teenagers does the Church organize?” my mother asked, hiding her real question: Can my daughter meet a nice Chinese boy to date in your church?
“We have dances, community service trips, movie nights, Sunday school, that sort of thing,” said Elder Johnson, smiling a brilliant white smile. “Young people have a very enriching experience!”
“And,” added Elder Richards, “Dong has expressed interest in starting a Chinese-language Bible study. We don’t have any other Chinese members, but we would like to.”
It was difficult to look from Elder Richards’s face to my mother’s without anticipating her disappointment, and I worried it would be unmistakable. Would he see through her and be offended? There was no denying that my mother had misled them both, but I cringed to think they would be angry with her. Betraying nothing, my mother responded coolly with a look of delight.
“Service trips!” she exclaimed. “Wonderful, community service so important.” Then she laughed charmingly, and the two Elders smiled and laughed too.
• • •
Elder Johnson placed the VHS tape into the player, and the welcome video began. Both missionaries scooted themselves up to the front edge of their chairs and turned toward the screen with practiced but earnest expressions. Elder Richards glanced over at my father with a warm smile, as if they had known each other all their lives and were just now reunited in anticipation of a fantastic event. It seemed to me that my father blushed slightly in response and adopted the same formal pose.
The video opened on a white Jesus being laid down upon the cross, his face twisted in agony while men tied ropes to his wrists and ankles. While a woman’s voice-over asked, “How much does Jesus love you?” I snuck a glance at the Elders and saw that both were convincingly pretending to not know the movie’s every frame by heart. A dramatic musical crescendo began as Jesus opened his eyes to anticipate the first crucifixion nail, which came down on his left hand in tandem with the first great swell of orchestra cymbals. A faintly whispered but perceptible “Aye ya!” escaped my mother at that moment, followed by a strange little squeak.
I had seen my mother faint once before, several years ago in a dentist’s office after my grandfather had a routine cavity filled. When the procedure was over and the tools removed from my grandfather’s mouth, the dentist asked him to swish a cup of water around and spit it into the portable sink pulled up next to his chair. The water came out not quite red, closer to a dark pink, but the sight of my grandfather’s bloody smile while he gave a thumbs up had done my mother in. She crumpled right there onto the cool tile floor, silently at first, knocking over a stack of gleaming metal tool trays on her way down.
“I hate blood!” my mother said afterward. “If you grew up a poor Buddhist like me, you have never had to prepare bloody meat. I’m not used to it! And that doctor was talking to me the whole time like I didn’t speak English too!”
Elder Johnson and I turned at the same time to see my mother’s pale eyelids flutter erratically for a moment before closing. Some residual force in her body kept her upright for another fraction of a second, and then her small frame seemed to fold in half. The weight of her head and arms falling sent my mother sliding out of her chair onto the floor.
“Oh my god!” Elder Johnson exclaimed, with frantic concern, as he rose from his own seat and rushed to my mother’s side. Spontaneously, his choice of words caused me to utter an inappropriate laugh, which my father met with a stern look.
“Go get a cold rag!” my father shouted at me in Chinese. The Elders and I heard it ring out strangely in the room, the two young men unintentionally excluded from its meaning, before my father repeated it again, softer, in English. “Go get a cold rag, please!” he said. Undistracted, Elder Johnson knelt and gently lifted my mother up off the floor with Elder Richards assisting him, and then rushed to press pause on the video, which was still playing loudly on the television. My father grabbed a Time magazine from the coffee table and desperately fanned my mother with it while shooing me away.
The visit was decidedly over. The two missionaries stood and announced that perhaps it would be better if they came back another day, and none of us disagreed. A flustered Elder Richards attempted a good natured “I admit it’s intense, the sacrifices Jesus made for us” before being shown the way to the front door by my father. All four adults were embarrassed but eager to do their best to conclude what had been a hopeful day on a friendly note.
“I’m sorry!” my mother shouted into the foyer from the couch, where she lay reclined. “Sometimes that happens. Not good day for this, I guess!”
“No need to apologize!” Elder Johnson shouted back from the doorway. He removed his slippers and stacked them in a neat pile next to the door, shook my father’s hand, and smoothly shouldered his backpack. Elder Richards was already waiting awkwardly on the front porch.
“Get some rest and feel better!” Elder Johnson shouted one last time into the house, and then they disappeared down the front steps.
• • •
My mother seemed to recover quickly after hearing the front door close behind the two young missionaries, but never in the years to come would she let slip a word of the poignantly timed deception.
“They were very nice,” she said, and not a word more.
My father put on a new pot of tea in the kitchen, and I went upstairs to call Jenny.
“Well?!” she asked. “What were they like?”
“They were pretty cool, and one of them was really cute,” I said. “But my mom fainted during a video they brought, so they left early.”
“My mom fainted once at a Korean barbecue,” Jenny said. “You know where you have to grill your own raw meat?”
“That’s funny,” I said. “My mom says Buddhists can’t handle raw meat.”
Jenny wanted to know more about Elder Johnson, so I told her about his shiny blond hair and how he had reacted swiftly when my mother fainted. That seemed to make her strangely happy, and we wondered together for a long time about whether or not the Elders had girlfriends and if they liked Chinese food.
“All my sister’s white boyfriends from college always love Chinese food,” Jenny said. “They all say it’s their favorite.”
“Well, they can’t drink green tea,” I said, “because of the caffeine.”
“I guess I can never date a Mormon then!” said Jenny, and I wondered if she thought she was telling the truth.
• • •
The following day I found some informational pamphlets about the Church in our mailbox, along with a handwritten note from the two Elders apologizing for the graphic content of the video. Elder Johnson had written that he would be happy to come by a different time and fast-forward through the first few minutes of the tape. There is no more crucifixion in the rest of it! his note assured us.
When I presented my father with the pamphlets and note at dinner, he rifled through them, pausing at a passage about a mandatory donation of ten percent annual income to the Church, which he read aloud to me through mouthfuls of garlic cucumber noodles. Also outlined were the guidelines about tea, which we laughed about until, it seemed, we both thought of Elder Johnson at the same time and suddenly it felt unkind. My father showed the pamphlets to my mother and asked if she wanted to keep one around.
“No need,” she said. “I can always ask Dong if I have any questions, maybe tomorrow when he comes over for karaoke.” And that was the end of it. My father threw the pamphlets in the trash, and neither myself nor my mother protested.
Then my mother turned to me and said, “Li Li,” using my Chinese pet name, “I saw some Chinese kids at the library this week when I was returning books. I will take you with me next time, okay?” Her smile looked tired, but her tone was bright.
My father raised an eyebrow without looking up from his noodles. I pretended to think about it.
“Hao,” I said, agreeing in the way I knew my mother would understand.
Wendy Xu is most recently the author of Phrasis (Fence, 2017), winner of the Ottoline Prize. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Boston Review, Poetry, Guernica, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. The recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, she is poetry editor for Hyperallergic.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.