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What I Learned by Wearing My Chinese Mother's Dress

My arms twisted behind me, my hands scrambling on the silk satin. I caught one end of the zipper and pulled it up. I could only reach so far with that hand from that angle, and I raised my left arm, dropped my forearm behind my shoulder, found the zipper, and closed the gap. I smoothed my hands down my sides, slippery as water.

I was wearing my mother's dress for the very first time.


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The mini-dress had a slit up the right side and a pattern of white feathery embroidery and circles of Oriental design. The dress fit tight across my chest and snug on my thighs. I felt sexy.

An alarming thought struck me: My mother was sexy. She was a scientist, and I was a journalist, but sometimes, we both liked to strut.

An alarming thought struck me: My mother was sexy.

The dress was hidden in the back of a closet at my parents' house, in the spare bedroom, the dark red glimmering from behind my sister's pastel Gunne Sax prom dresses and racks of suits with padded shoulders. I'd recently moved back to the Bay Area following stints in Hartford and Los Angeles, and I was searching for an ugly Christmas sweater when the dress caught my eye. Until then, I'd never closely examined my mother's Chinese clothes—a wardrobe that hailed from another land, another time, that seemed to have nothing to do with me.

Elegant and festive, with white fur cuffs, this dress seemed a perfect fit for an upcoming holiday party.

A half-century ago, just before she left Taiwan to attend graduate school in the United States, my mother had commissioned a tailor to make a rainbow array of dresses in silks and summer lightweight fabrics. Modern takes on the classic qi pao, the fitted tunic dress that flatter a slender frame. The owners of the fabric store were family friends, and my mother would never forget their generosity, the fine fabrics at a good price, sewn in a hurry.

"A rush job," she said. "I was leaving in a week."

"Why didn't you plan ahead?" I asked, though I already knew she never had and never would.

"You didn't make long term plans. You didn't make an appointment two months in advance to see a doctor. The doctor lived down the street, and if you didn't feel well, you knocked on the door, day or night. I miss that freestyle life."

No matter how many questions I ask, no matter how many stories my mother tells, much of her life remains a mystery.

Born in China, she fled as a child with her family as the Communists came to power. She spent most of her time studying, but in the long muggy evenings, she lived outside, perched on a low wood stool, listening to her neighbors tell stories. Once a week, outdoor movies would light up the darkness.

She attended the top girl's high school and university in Taiwan. In the early 1960s, she and my father were among the brilliant Chinese students who landed fellowships to study science and engineering at American graduate schools.

Always in the lab, she didn't have much occasion to dress up, and even less cause to take pictures. When she was getting married, she asked the tailor in Taiwan to make her wedding dress she saw in a magazine: snow white and elegant, with short sleeves, fitted bodice and a beaded train.

My mother has no photos from her childhood, no mementos saved during the war when her family was on the move ahead of advancing enemy forces. A different era, compared to today, when every moment begs for a snap of the camera phone.

Eventually, her family followed her to the United States. Only my grandfather's grave remains behind. Many alumni from her high school and university have also settled here. She has no desire to return to Taiwan—the traffic, the pollution—no need to revisit her girlhood when every few months, she meets her classmates for lunch to relive those memories.

She has her wedding dress and those tailor-made dresses, and now I do too. Well-made, the stitches perfect, the designs unique—a Western style but with Chinese fabric. "The dress is like a museum piece, for forever, still valuable as in any time," my mother said. "There's no other place you can buy."

Wearing her clothes helps me understand her in a visceral way, to feel as she might have felt.

Other treasures I've started wearing include a burgundy silk jacket with frog closures that I paired with black leather pants. The sleeves are the perfect length on my petite frame, another inheritance from my mother. There's also a sleeveless A-line mini-dress that she wore to my father's graduation that I wear with black knee-high boots.

No matter how many questions I ask, no matter how many stories my mother tells, much of her life remains a mystery, with vast gaps in generation, geography, and culture. By the time she gave birth to me, she'd lived lifetimes I would never see firsthand.

Wearing her clothes helps me understand her in a visceral way, to feel as she might have felt, as I did at the holiday party that night, spilling outdoors, beautiful and cozy against the chill while the other women shivered in their cocktail dresses.

Vanessa Hua is a San Francisco writer who blogs about multi-generational households at threeunderone.blogspot.com.

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