Jennifer Co: 1993 – 1998

I am 21 and I am waiting. I wait for the university to spit me back out into the world, for the past four years to suddenly, and unabashedly, mean something. I wait and I watch friends and roommates and chosen strangers arrive upon the doorsteps to the rest of their lives: grad school admissions and gap years and start ups, sprinkled with full time offers from the companies spilling from my father’s news coverage sometimes, a marriage every now and then, a baby shower. I think of the palpable precarity of the void to come; feel it already shifting to make room for me, something in the way I’m handed car keys after dinner. Nonetheless, I am a good daughter, and so, I am waiting. 

I think of my mother at this time in her life, the five years she spent in Taiwan. After finishing her undergrad at the University of the Philippines, she had taken her psychology turned chemistry degree to join a layman’s organization called Opus Dei, where she was assigned to the Taipei division and shortly found joining the enrollment queues of the foreign language school in order to qualify for a student visa. When I ask her about what it was like to build a life for herself in Taiwan, my mother names it in this way; all the tangibles, that is, find work, get a visa. She tells me, with a shrug, that the plan was to stay there forever, though to a place it seemed she had been so arbitrarily assigned. 

My mother’s stories of her time in Taipei always blend into the largely quixotic. Between her jobs for Opus Dei, she had side gigs teaching English and eventually found work in an academic lab willing to sponsor her. She tells me about the bakery she’d visit every day after lab, a softness I reencounter every time we pass a Sheng Kee bread, tugging me by the hand towards the taro buns. I was the type of child willing to eat anything because it was purple. She tells me about how there were holidays for everything: Labor Day, Memorial Days, both Chinese and American New Years, Dragon Boat and Mid Autumn Festivals — a fraction of every month off for national observances, unlike anything she’d seen in the Philippines and later the United States. She tells me about the other scientists and lab techs, quiet and searching and somehow always at the lab. She tells me about the night markets she’d watch the streets preparing for on the walk home from work, gone without a trace on the walk back in the mornings, and how she regrets never having gone to one in her five years there. She smiles at the ground during those parts of her stories; something or other about never having time or never having permission from the organization to go. I blink at the void and think how perhaps I am largely waiting for the same things. 

I recall, in a high school summer I’d spent as a camp counselor, how my ears had prickled at the sound of a camper and his father, ushering the child towards the parking lot in hushed Taiwanese. The intonations reignited the ghosts of my first language, Hokkien, which I’ve long since traded for English, leaving only its hollow shapes to be traced in my mouth’s memory. I remember rushing to tell my mother about how I had understood some of the camper’s words, how I heard the gentle demands in the language to go home; the quiet and comfortable resignation drifting in the air suddenly discernable to me, only beneath the surface of a candied filter obstructing my view. This was one of the first times I’d caught glimpses of my forgotten first language, caught my mind reaching for her. I asked my mother if she’d been exempted from such a search, having grown up speaking Hokkien and living in Taiwan where it is still widely used. I recall how she’d shrugged off the prospect, saying how they’d spoken predominantly Mandarin in Taipei and how there wasn’t much more to it. But I think of my mother, speaking Tagalog with her friends and learning Mandarin in her classes, telling stories in English to children now strangers to Hokkien’s sound, and I think about how hard we work to inadvertently land somewhere that isn’t home. 

The memories of my upbringing are colored with glimpses of who my mother was before me. I see her with her reading glasses on, through the entryway of her bedroom door left ajar, my baby sister nestled into the crook of her arm sucking lazily from a pai tzu as my mother reads her philosophy book aloud in the same voice she’d narrate storybooks to me, rounded and theatric and full of light. My mother’s reading voice is unlike anything in her speaking. It has none of Tagalog’s hardened consonants, buh’s and kuh’s coming down like rainfall, nor the sweetened tswee’s or gwah’s of Hokkien, falling through like opening faucets. Above the ironing board I see her shoe boxes of stationary, the sticker collection I wasn’t allowed to touch as a child, and the scalloped edges of the note paper she once nestled behind car keys, congratulations on grad school in her sweet and sweeping handwriting. Still more, I see how my mother’s eyes rest on the road when she listens to my stories, how she never rushes me in book stores, the way she soundlessly, still, scoots over for me in bed when I tell her that I am empty. I imagine my mother, for those five years in Taipei, cradling a book bag through the libraries’ philosophy aisles, balancing doctrine with the reading lists of a could’ve been psychology degree, watching strangers and trying on answers. I think of her reaching for the top shelves of bakery walls and walking along sidewalks with the day’s pastry back to her apartment unit, racing the bike riders and street vendors with their push carts and daydreaming of the afternoons in the Philippines she’d spent stealing my grandpa’s car to wander through Quezon City’s roads. I think of the people she planned on writing with that stationary paper, the way her handwriting flirts between cursive and type. Of the forever that she planned on staying, my mother was only in Taipei for five years. But I think of the night markets she’d trace the residue of but never actually attend, and imagine her in this way, approaching each day there like she had eternity on her side. 

I prepare myself now for my own five years, and in the waiting I wonder how far from home I will realize myself to one day be — somewhere between wanting and fearing it, and in any case afraid to be caught looking. But I catch glimpses of myself all the same: stealing my dad’s car to follow the sun down Highway 101, tilting my head towards Hokkien’s ghosts, tucking myself in next to my mother every time, and at a speed from which life might take me too, unsuspecting. 

In her fifth year in Taipei, my mother had returned from lab to find a particular unread email in the purple of her Yahoo messenger: a high school classmate pursuing the burgeoning field of Information Technology in America, using his newfound skill set to reach across a decade of time and 6,432 miles of space — my father. Perhaps that’s when the waiting stopped, as I am the oldest of six and have lived in California my whole life, and my mother, in her insistence on scalloped stationeries, is hardly a woman lacking in conviction. But I am 21. And so I think of the precarity of those five years that my mother must have held, trying to discern between chemistry and psychology, between sidewalk and road — the cracks between vocation and ambition from which identity grows.

Jennifer Co (she/her) is a Chinese Filipina writer and eldest daughter from the Bay Area with an affinity for sky romanticisms. In her creative practice, Jen aims to center sensitivity, engage precarity, and always, write towards possibility. She recently graduated from UC Berkeley’s Chemistry and Creative Writing departments, and will be pursuing a PhD in Chemistry in the Fall.

From Jennifer: “My mother lived in Taiwan for the five years before she reconnected with who would one day be my dad, and thinking of her in that time was the entryway for me to engage with so much and all that colors aimlessness; decisions and distance and home and love. I’d been waiting for the chance to give words to what this contest has afforded me the first steps into chasing, and what I’m sure I will continue to stride towards in all that is to follow. I write this in gratitude, I write this in awe. And to my mother, hi mama, it is all for you.”

You can keep up with Jennifer at her Instagram (@jen_anne_co) and Twitter (@jcrunkyy).

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