"you eat first, and I'll eat what's left."

january in tokyo, and the first rain of the year. the sky was patting the plastic sheeting of the terrance with fat, soft hands. I chain-smoked cigarettes and felt guilty as I always do, remembering how my mother's face had never looked older than when I opened the door and the smell of smoke arrogantly followed, when she searched my purse for stray lighters.

she had come to visit tokyo in december, and emboldened with the memories of this city's unabashed seduction, I was determined to show her the place that had claimed my devotion. the secret greens whispering in-between erratic topography. the rose-fringe light. the absurd energy of boiling concrete. the defense that one unavoidably builds when home is abandoned for not-home.

it is no secret that love is literally a meal. my mother and I are always on the same side of the kitchen table; she's sitting on the chair sideways, legs crossed, one hand smoothing out the ends of her hair.
 is it good?
 it's great. why aren't you eating?
 you eat first, and I'll eat what's left.

do you know what japanese people have done to the chinese? my mother has said to me, dozens of times. I knew. children battered against brick. men kneeling. red river water. bottles and branches between the legs of girls. I averted her searching eyes. I tried to nod without it resembling complicity. I twisted my fingers, craving a cigarette.

through yanaka, we walked arm in arm. the 3pm sun was vivid and it softened us. I kept my eye out for pomegranates, the gift of winter my local supermarket overlooked, as she took bites from my sesame ice cream. through yellowed sake bars and cornflower-blue ceramics, I could feel her-- some part of her admiring resplendence, even unwillingly so. she, like I, was slowly being incorporated into the magic that--if one allows it--always pervades the body in these moments, alignments of time and circumstance in which one walks as if in cinema, and the air tastes as if someone had tasted it beforehand, and decided against adding more sugar. it's sweet enough.

later that night, she laid in my bed, and said to herself or maybe to me; japanese people really know how to live. there was resignation. bitterness. she would say it again after an afternoon at the onsen, and again, picking up pre-cut green onions at the grocery store. again, sipping impeccably frothed cappuccinos in ginza. the beauty, the luxury, the sheer impudence of this sprawling urbanity seemed an affront to her. I knew she was remembering her hometown. the exhausted traffic. the splayed, vulnerable structures. the chaos of vegetable markets. why do they have these things when we do not, she was asking. why do they have them when we have suffered?

my mother grew up at the end of the second sino-japanese war. when I was four years old, she took me to nanjing. we stood at the memorial museum as it sketched its triangular mark upon our bodies, and she did not take my hand when she told me, this is important. I did not know enough to be afraid of monochromatic photos or steel reincarnations. I could read only one character out of ten of the script patterning the walls, because I had not yet learned the language of violence. we bought a high-gloss book that detailed the stories of the war, and it traversed the pacific ocean as we left china behind. I would read it as a six year old child. I would come across it again when I was eight, then again at sixteen. even if my mother had not told me I would've known. it was important.

when I made the decision to move to japan, my parents were neither surprised nor disappointed. I had been travelling to tokyo for years, had brought back sweets and lipsticks and rolls of film, and was always planning my next trip immediately upon return. do you know what japanese people have done to chinese people, my mother asked and I did not respond. she knew my answer, and I knew that I should say nothing. there is very little space reserved for politics in that house. they tried half-heartedly to change my mind, but they know their daughter. my mother spent the next months trying in vain to teach me how to cook. ginger, anise, the darkest soy sauce you can find. I knew what that meant, and she knew she didn't have to say anything else.

I do not, and cannot, blame my mother for her ideas. she is not enthralled, as I am, by these impeccably maintained streets, by sumida river at sunrise, by this strange and staggering reconciliation of serenity and uproar. she does not come from a place in which one reserves a space for romanticism. yet she has created, from nothing, that space for me. the life I live. the city I love. the reason I feel sorry everytime I buy a carton of cigarettes. you eat first, and I'll eat what's left, throughout thousands of childhood dinners. it is my responsibility as her daughter to live without hate, without resentment. when she tells me something is important, I say yes, I know. and what it means is: I must take everything that you have given to me, everything that you have sacrificed, to not only know, but to know better.

shelly shan

hi, my name is shelly. I do a thing where I make words into unnecessarily emotional composites. I don't know why I'm allowed on the internet, but I like it here.