After my mother died, I decided to move to China in her honor. Here’s why.
Happy Mother’s Day! In honor of all the amazing moms, grandmothers, step-mothers, older sisters, aunts, godmothers, and female role models out there, we’re celebrating with stories of our relationships with our mother figures.
My mother died five years ago of a stroke that she had in her sleep. She was only 53. Before her death, I was an ordinary 22 year old: I took my time in college, hosted at a restaurant and spent my pay checks on blouses and brunch. My only real responsibility was my dog. After my mom died, after we’d thrown away the containers full of leftover deviled eggs and fruit salad, after losing our home to the bank, what was left of my family came to live together three hours north, in my college town. My two little brothers, our family dogs, and my mother’s pet rabbit I’d gotten her for her birthday crammed into a ramshackle renter’s cabin two miles from the university. Every day, we fought to learn what it meant to keep the lights on and keep our grades up and ignore dark pool of sadness in our stomachs.
After a semester of losing myself to tears in writers’ workshops and flunking out of Algebra, I dropped out of school and started waitressing. After my shifts, I folded boxers in front of Miyazaki movies and asked my brothers what they wanted to watch next. I went from a distant sister to a doting mother, plagued by worries for my boys’ emotional and physical health. My favorite pastime changed from parties to family dinner nights, and I began to rely on their “hellos” when I dropped my keys on the table after work. I didn’t want them to have to do anything at all besides what they wanted to do; I wanted to carry their weight. I think I would have done anything to forget how much I hurt.
Eventually, my middle brother was too undone by grief to spend his days with two people who sounded and looked just like his mother. He moved to the mountains to explore music and live with our father. By this time, it’d been two years since our mother died. My littlest brother was a sophomore in college, excelling at his studies, and not so little anymore. I was still a waitress, and along with my boyfriend James, my brothers were among the three brightest lights in my life. As much as I knew that it was a healthy, natural thing for siblings to have their own lives, I desperately wanted to stave off my inevitable loneliness. I wanted a different skillset; I wanted to insure my hands wouldn’t always be calloused from serving hot plates to customers.So, when I was 25, I re-enrolled in college.
Last May, four years after our mother passed away, I followed through on a promise I made to her long ago and graduated with my bachelor’s in English. A dear friend hosted a party in my honor, and it was a bright beginning to a bittersweet summer. My littlest brother and I decided that the coming August would mark the end of our days of living together. We would embark on our inevitable flight. He and I slowly packed up our things, split our holiday decorations and DVD collection right down the middle, and I cried in secret and in the open over the loss of his nearness. One night, wracked with anxiety, I asked him, “What do I do now?” And my tall, thoughtful brother said, “Well, now you live for you.”
It took me a long time to start rebuilding my one-woman life. I moved in with James, and set myself up to be the housemother for him and his roommates. This old trade of mine didn’t suit anyone, especially me. I’d lie in my boyfriend’s bed on my days off and lose myself in memories of my mother, of naps under her patchwork quilts, of sunlight coming in through the windows of my and my brothers’ cabin. I wallowed in my sadness for so long that I knew I needed a way to channel my grief into positivity. I knew I needed to reroute my loss into action. One day, while we were eating brisket sandwiches, my boyfriend said, “Remember when we were going to teach in China?” And I did remember. In fact, my dreams of new places and faces and food came flooding back to me. I’d forgotten I was a young and vibrant woman. My life was ahead of me, and I wanted to travel; I wanted to teach.
After five months of interviews and paperwork and exorbitant fees and teary farewells, my boyfriend and I boarded a flight to Beijing. There were fifteen hours between us and our future. On the plane, I sat beside another American girl bound to make her life anew. Once we could see the tiny lights of Russia beneath our wing, she and I bounced in our seats with sleepy excitement. I held tight to the necklace I wore in memory of my mother. Finally, I was flying.
In Beijing, I was a fresh-faced, excited American on the other side of the world. I was a Southern girl with very little experience with subways, with convincing foreign taxi drivers to drive me to my distant hotel, with eating food I couldn’t immediately recognize. Despite the culture shock, James and I made friends with our fellow trainees, all worldly and English-speaking, and maneuvered the various means of transportation in Beijing without much of a hitch. We became regulars of a kind Chinese couple’s food-cart outside our subway station, learned a new word each day, and one by one, resolved my fears. I know that my mother was with me in the capital, encouraging me, cheering for me to reach further and further until I could hold tight to my bravery and never let go.
After our first three weeks training in Beijing, we moved to our year-long city by the sea. Our apartment in Dalian sits high above the city on the 24th floor of a family friendly apartment complex, and every night when we come home from work, I say hello to the view. We make new friends every day: our three teaching assistants, their kind friends, our incomparable reception staff.
My mother would be proud of me, and the man I love. She’d be pleased to hear how he drove through two snowstorms for our visas, how we eat a Chinese lunch and make an American dinner together every day, how we follow each other when we can’t find our bus home, how we encourage each other to provide lessons and whimsy in our classrooms. .
My mother was a certified public accountant for more than thirty years. She rallied against the severity of the IRS and took payments in the form of mechanic work and pet chinchillas. She told me once how she ached to be a teacher – a professor at a local university. She’d come from a long line of educators, and was the first of many people to tell me that my calling was in education. All through my long college career, I dreamed of the day I could finally call a classroom “mine,” decorate it with solar systems and Shakespeare, and encourage my children to think outside the box.
In China, I’ve realized this dream. Not only do I get the chance to resurrect the imagination of my youth, but I get to inspire little ones every day to think outside the box, to think they are superheroes and princesses, doctors and artists, to believe that they too can fly. We have a new theme to explore every week, and sometimes I’m a cowgirl, and sometimes I’m a streetwise alley cat. My mother would be proud to see me holding the hand of a shy little boy during music class while I teach him to dance and strut. She would be proud to know I convinced my boss that girls could sign up for our Superheroes class too. She would be happy to see the way I power through the kids’ fears of me and my foreign green eyes; how I roll a ball back and forth to them until they trust my strange, Western face. She would tell me, “Your eyes light up when those babies sing with you.” She would be proud to see that I am finally, happily, comfortably living out the role she chose for me so long ago. My mother was my first and most important teacher, the one who taught me to always leave a place better than I found it, the one who convinced me that I could do and be anything with real effort, and here I am, finally, at the beginning of a dream she and I designed together.
Edy Dingus is a proud big sister from the American South living and teaching in China. While abroad, she and her boyfriend spend too much on cheese and travel accessories and discuss what their family, friends, and two dogs might be doing back in the States. You can read more about her journey at thiszhonguolife.wordpress.com