The Escort Nun
My mother left her apartment with the stove on. Sometimes she called me ten times within fifteen minutes. One late night, a friend found her wandering alone in Chinatown in her heels and gold and jade jewelry after a ballroom dancing lesson, because she forgot the way home.
In 2007, a California Pacific Medical Center doctor interviewed Mom to assess her dementia. She insisted that I fly from New York to San Francisco to be her English interpreter.
Even though Mom had moved to the U.S. in 1972, she never bothered to learn English. Being dependent was a way of controlling my father and her children. Somehow, she passed the English and civics test to become a U.S. citizen by memorizing every question and answer, and only got one wrong. After Dad died, Mom signed up for English as a Second Language classes. In the first year, she made me to do her homework and got top grades. In the second year, she refused to advance to the next level and remained First Student. Teachers and students adored the social and fashionable Mrs. Hu.
“Tell me about your childhood, Mrs. Hu,” Doc asked.
Since Mom had told her childhood stories many times, I spoke over her to speed up the interview. “I was born in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province in the South of China. When I was two, my mother, younger brother and I left for Lima Peru, where my father owned a grocery store. Papa was murdered by a robber when I was four. Blaming us for bringing bad luck, Grandpa shipped us back to China. In 1938, when I was in sixth grade, the evil Japs occupied Guangdong and I had to quit school. To support my family, I peddled snacks and trinkets on the street. I smeared mud and dung over my face and body to escape being kidnapped as a sex slave by Jap soldiers,” Mom shuddered and teared up when recounting the atrocities of the war. What a drama queen, I thought.
When the Sino-Japanese War morphed into World War II, Mom and her family escaped to Macau, a neutral territory somewhat protected from the Japanese.
“What did you do in Macau, Mrs. Hu?” Doc asked.
“I joined a convent to become a nun. The convent provided food and shelter. It was the only practical thing to do. Three years later, I left the convent for Hong Kong. I was fed up with the Mother Superior. May God strike down that mean-spirited water buffalo!” Mom sneered.
Doc looked at his watch, “Tell me about your life in Hong Kong.” Mom glanced away in silence.
“Tell him. We don’t have all day,” I pressed her.
Mom hesitated, “I married my first husband and had a son named Joseph, and I became a nurse.” When Doc asked for her husband’s name, Mom interrupted, “Tell him it’s none of his business.”
“No, Mom, answer.” I insisted. When I was five and Joe was thirteen, a neighbor’s son kept taunting my brother, “Sampan kid! Sampan kid!”. Joe went berserk and beat up the bully. That night, when I asked Mom the meaning of “sampan kid”, she just ignored me.
Years later, I learned that “sampan kid” was the Cantonese slang for bastard child. Never once had she talked about Joe’s father.
“What happened to your first husband?” I seized my chance to force Mom out of her shadows.
“Don’t know,” she half-whispered, then tried to deflect, “Did you tell Doc that I was a nurse?”
“You were not a nurse,” I snapped.
“I started nursing school but ran out of money.”
“Stop lying!” I stared straight at Mom and hissed, “You were a wu nu!”
“Nonsense! I was a nurse,” her voice sounded angry, but her eyes showed fear.
“Liar! Thomas told me everything. His cousin’s father was one of your regular clients.” Thomas was my ex-fiancé. Chinese. Doctor. Catholic. The perfect catch in Mom’s book.
Mom fidgeted with the clasp of her black handbag with fingers gnarled by arthritis. Her hands were shaking. “Tell him that I do not remember. Please.”
“No wonder Dad called you a ‘chau hai’ in front of your own children.” I crucified her with Dad’s frequent and cruel taunt of ‘stinky cunt’ in Cantonese.
Some years earlier, when Mom learned about my busted engagement with Thomas, she screamed at me across the table at an elegant restaurant, to the dismay of the other patrons. “Thomas left you because you were not a virgin! You’re a whore! Your bring shame to our family and our Chinese culture!” Thomas was my first lover, but I was too enraged and hurt by Mom to tell her that Thomas cheated on me with his best friend’s girlfriend before dumping me.
I turned toward Doc. “My mother was a wu nu – a dance hall escort,” I said with deliberation. “She was a top escort at the most popular social club in Hong Kong. Her job was to dance, drink and entertain men.”
I stood up. “We are very tired. May we continue next week?” Mom followed as I walked out without waiting for Doc’s answer.
During the taxi ride, Mom stared ahead in silence. When we arrived at her apartment building, she finally spoke, “Your grandmother was sick. Your uncle was a womanizer and gambler. I had to support Joe and my family. It was the only practical thing to do.” She started to open the car door, then paused. “I seduced men, but I was never a whore. And, if I had not married your father, you, too, would have been a ‘sampan kid’.” Mom slammed the door and disappeared into the shadows.
Monica Woo: “I am a first-generation Chinese immigrant, who went from waiting tables at my father’s hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Alaska to the executive suites of major corporations. With my stories, I hope to inspire all people that life is not about survival of the fittest, but evolution to better versions of ourselves.”