Campus Life vivian’s reflections

Dear Mom

A letter for Mother’s Day

Dear Mom,

I never told you this before, but I wanted to write you a letter this past month. I am sorry that a letter hasn’t arrived in your mailbox yet, as I make excuses about not finding the time to write. I thought about writing before bed and after dinner on a weekend night, but I never came to it. I bought a stationery writing set containing 50 letters and envelopes last semester, but I only wrote two letters—two for di di—because I felt like texting and calling could only do so much. The 48 remaining letters are waiting to be filled with my thoughts and emotions directed to a loved one like you.

You may wonder, “Why write letters when you can just call me?” It’s a good question, considering that most people call or text their parents nowadays. Calling is better than texting, but I don’t like having conversations in this void where I cannot read your face or body language. By that logic, I could resort to using FaceTime, but I have spent most of my life seeing you in person, and the idea of seeing you on a screen pales by comparison. It’s hard to put my discontent into words, but I just don’t like how phone calls demand a response on the spot, when some things I want to say require contemplation and can’t be simply delivered on the phone. 

Perhaps the greater issue at hand isn’t the nature of phone calls themselves, but rather that our phone calls have evolved around the same set of questions: how is life, how is MIT, how is my brother, how is my social life? I write this not to blame you for making the phone calls feel mundane and routine, as I have not done enough from my end to make them as deep as I would like them to be. I believe that letters, on the other hand, allow me to express my unsaid thoughts in a more fulfilling and intentional way. Although people view handwritten letters as an outdated mode of communication for their slowness and limited interactions, I still think it’s something worth revisiting. 

I actually heard about the benefits of letter writing in high school, but forgot about it until recently. I don’t remember what exactly inspired me to write this letter, but I think it was my friend who gave me this idea. When my friend talked about writing letters, I was initially confused because I found the concept to be antiquated. After sharing their thoughts about how lettering writing requires reflection and vulnerability, however, the whole thing sounded quite appealing. I was convinced. The conversation I had with my friend reminded me of this insightful TED Radio Hour podcast I listened to in high school about the lost art of letter-writing. The podcast stood out to me because I never considered the value that comes from slowing down to carefully write a letter, and the beauty of waiting for a letter to arrive in a mailbox. But I was still in high school, living at home, so the idea of writing letters to someone didn’t crystallize until recently. 

Now that I have explained my rationale for writing this letter, I will share the epistolary thoughts I had in my mind this past month, thoughts that feel like an imaginary conversation with you except you are silent. I don’t call you as often as before, but I have so much to share with you – random thoughts, Chinese history and culture, and so much more.

For example, I have been listening to a lot more Chinese songs ever since last year. You probably are aware of this, as I asked you for the names of the Chinese songs that you frequently play in the car so I could compile a Spotify playlist. I still mainly listen to classical music, but I enjoy listening to the Chinese songs you recommended to me, especially Faye Wong. 

Even though her songs are around 30 years old, they sound timeless to me. There’s something incredibly beautiful and touching about her voice and lyricism. Did you know reading the lyrics of 暧昧 (Oi Mui) made me sob because the song was so relatable for me, even though I don’t understand Cantonese? I wonder if her other songs moved you to tears, like 棋子 (Qi Zi) and 执迷不悔 (Zhi Mi Bu Hui).

The songs you play in the car make me wonder if you were a romantic in your 20s, or if everyone liked listening to love ballads at that time. I like thinking back to those rare moments when I heard you gently sing these songs, because you had this youthful energy that I wished I saw more. I not only listen to Chinese songs of the ’90s, but I also watch Chinese movies like Chungking Express so I can understand your past better.

I already shared my thoughts about Chungking Express with you in my freshman year, but I still think back to this classic film. Chungking Express takes place in Hong Kong in the mid-90s, which is when you lived in Shanghai. The two cities are different from each other, but both were on the cusp of major change. I can’t help but wonder whether your life had any semblance to the waitress in the movie: having big dreams, yearning for love. Yes, these are themes that still exist to this day, but you were living in an eventful decade, a time when China was experiencing rapid growth and modernization. You must have been excited about entering China’s early corporate world as a recent graduate, hopeful about your future.

On a similar note, I think about the scene in 恋爱的犀牛 (Rhinoceros in Love) where the characters march synchronously, welcoming the new millennium while the clock ticked in the background. It must have been exciting to enter this new era, as you would embark on a new chapter of your life by immigrating to the U.S. a few years later.

I could just simply ask you to tell me your entire life story during this decade, but I am okay with letting some things remain unknown. Even though there are gaps in these images I have of your past, I enjoy trying to picture your past with the limited knowledge I have.

Besides wanting to know more about your past, I now have this desire to know more about your family’s past, especially lao lao and lao ye’s story. I told you that I am taking Modern China (21H.152) this semester, but I haven’t told you how personal this class turned out to be for me. I originally signed up for this class to learn more about China’s past 250 years of history, not considering that the class would make me raise so many questions about my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives under Mao’s rule. I know this letter is meant to be addressed to you, but the letter is also indirectly addressed to our family and extended relatives.

You already told me about your parents’ and grandparents’ past and how they suffered during this time. I was aware of the horrors and atrocities that happened. But as I learned about events like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in greater depth, I couldn’t help but wonder what lao lao and lao ye’s lives were like during this difficult period.

How did lao lao endure the endless ridicule and humiliation growing up because her dad was a Nationalist? I can’t even imagine enduring a few days of this cruel, mental torture. It must have been demeaning for her to be barred from attending college not because of her lack of academic qualifications, but rather because of her class status. And how did my great-grandma raise lao lao and her three siblings alone because her husband was killed by the Communists early on? What was it like for lao lao and lao ye to leave their hometowns for the rural communes in Xinjiang, more than 2000 miles away from Jiangsu and Henan? I wonder if they cried before they boarded the train, not knowing what their future in this isolating place would entail.

When I think about your family’s past, I realize I don’t know much about lao ye’s upbringing, and I wish I knew more about him before he passed away when I was 12 years old. Unfortunately, I remembered him mainly for his taciturn nature and Alzheimer's, a disease that made him forget more and more over time. I have so many questions to ask you about their past, but I dare not broach this subject because I don’t want to remind you of their sad and painful stories.

As I learn more about Chinese history and culture, I will have more thoughts waiting to be shared with you. For me, having a deeper understanding of Chinese history and culture is my indirect way to become closer to you. It’s the same reason why I try to speak Chinese with you instead of English, even though I sometimes stumble and fail to find the words I want to say right away. It’s a shame that I am writing this letter in English instead of Chinese because I feel like using English makes this letter more emotionally distant. Writing letters will be on my mind, and one day, I will write one in Chinese instead. And as always, I will try to send a postcard back home if I am traveling, just like I have done in previous years.

Your daughter,


1: di di means “younger brother” in Chinese.

 2: lao lao means “grandma” in Chinese, and lao ye means “grandpa” in Chinese.