Maria’s Secret Featured

by on Thursday, 07 August 2014 Comments

Maria sat on the edge of her bathtub, looking straight at the display window of the test stick. She kept staring at it, in disbelief, after a pink line appeared first faint then distinct. She put her face in her hands and sobbed.


She calls herself Maria to make everyone's life easier: her Chinese first name, transcribed in pinyin, Xuezhao, is difficult to pronounce for most Americans. Maria lives in a small Midwestern town with her husband Peter, from Portland, Maine. Peter is a programmer while Maria is a biology professor at the nearby state university. They have no children together but Peter has a ten-year-old son from a previous marriage. Jacob lives two hours away with his mother and visits frequently.

She wiped her face dry with a wash cloth and went downstairs to cook. While lasagna was baking in the oven, she called her best friend since middle school, Liang Yue. 

It was around 7:30 am in China. Liang Yue had just woken up.

- Remember you told me that our classmate, Han Yang, was my cousin's head teacher?

- Yes, but why?

- I need to talk with him. Didn't you say my cousin wrote him a letter right before he died?

- But why, my dear, after so many years?

- ...I am pregnant.

- What does it have to do...? But wait! Congratulations! It's about time!

- You know I don't want any children.

- But your reasoning is silly. I've always hoped you would change your mind.

- Find him for me, please.

- He left the school shortly after what happened to your cousin and has never even shown up for any of our reunions. I will see what I can do.


After dinner, Maria told Peter that "we need to talk". She learned the phrase from him, who would say it calmly when there is a serious and usually difficult matter to discuss.

- I would like to take a trip to China.

- Sure. You haven't been there for a while. How about doing it as soon as you can and come back for July when Jacob spends the month with us?

- Of course I will be back by then. Also, I am pregnant.

- You what? ... I am really happy, Maria.

- We agreed not to have children though, remember?

- I went along because I understood where you were coming from, but sometimes what you did not plan for is the best thing to happen. Anyway, your worry has proved to be unfounded. You are great with Jacob.

- That's because I never consider myself his mother.


Other than Liang Yue, who belongs to her past, Peter is the only person who knows Maria's secret.

Maria has not seen her mother for fifteen years. The last time she saw her, Mother tried to beat her again. For once Dad intervened to stop it. She was then 25 and was about to come to the US for her PhD.

Maria does not remember when her mother hit her the first time. It was so "normal" for parents to beat their children. Her first vivid memory was in first grade, when Mother scratched her face with her nail and left ugly marks. Her math teacher Ms. Cheng was surprised when she noticed them:

- Did you have a fight? How could a well-behaved child like you get into a fight?

Maria fought back her tears.

- Your parents have beaten you? Why would they beat a good child like you?

Maria sobbed and said nothing. After that she grew extremely attached to Ms. Cheng. She would do her math homework meticulously and tried to get 100 points on every test. Ms. Cheng was pretty and had a sweetly crystal voice. Then she became sick with hepatitis and had to be replaced by another teacher, Mr. Bai. Maria missed her terribly. When Ms. Cheng finally came back the next semester, she was assigned to teach another class. One day, Maria gathered all her courage and went to the teachers' office. Ms. Cheng was grading homework, and did not look as affectionate as before. When she saw Maria, she asked if she was looking for Mr. Bai. Maria mumbled something and left.

Mother had never beaten her with her own hands. When she did not have immediate access to a belt, a stick or a broom in a rage, she would scratch her with her nails. In winter she forced her to take off her coat or sweater so that the beating would be more efficient. Sometimes she would ask her father to beat her and blame him for faking it. Father was afraid of her fury too, because she screamed loudly enough to be heard by the neighbors, who mostly avoided her. Sometimes she would threaten to go tell Maria's teachers or post "dazibao" (big-character poster) in her school so that people would all know what a bad child she actually was. The mere thought of that terrified Maria for many years: bright, perfectionist and eager to please, she was well liked in her school, until she realized that her mother probably would never really do it, because she took too much pride in her daughter's academic success. Mom had learned quite a few tricks from the Cultural Revolution, such as demanding a thorough, deeply-felt, soul-searching "jiantao", written self-criticism. She had shown Maria "jiantaos" written by her dad. They were so embarrassing that Maria wished she could wipe them from her memory and hoped nobody else would ever see them.

Liang Yue became Maria's best friend in middle school when they shared the same desk. On one of those days when they were supposed to wear a white shirt in school, she saw Maria's wounds on her arm. In high school, Maria grew defiant and would refuse to kneel down or write a "jiantao", which invariably resulted in heavier beatings or expulsion from home. Whenever Maria was kicked out by her mother, she would stay with Liang Yue for a few days, until her father came to get her:

- You can return home. Your mom is not angry anymore.

Mother was a beautiful woman and resembled a famous movie actress of the time. When she was in a good mood, she liked to tell Maria how many suitors she used to have. Maria enjoyed those special moments of closeness, even though it was obvious Mom regretted "naively" marrying her dad "for love": Girls not nearly half as pretty managed a better life by marrying an older government official, while she became an unfortunate woman mistreated by her husband, her daughter, her brother, her mother, her colleagues and supervisors. Over the years, Mother's bouts of rage became increasingly frequent and intense. She would scream in her fury:

- I am the one who gave you your life! I can destroy you if I want!

When Maria finished her PhD and received her job offer, she planned to return to China for a visit, like everybody else. Then she heard from Liang Yue about her cousin, her mother's younger brother's son. A diligent student, he did poorly on the mock exam of the gaokao, the higher education entrance exam. Beaten up violently by his parents and under tremendous pressure to get into a prestigious university, he committed suicide less than two months before the actual gaokao.

Maria cancelled her trip and vowed never to have any children. She had read books about child abuse and found out that abused children are highly likely to repeat the pattern. Her cousin's violent end was the last straw.

- You are a survivor and you should be proud of yourself.

Shame is what Maria instinctively feels, of what she is not sure, but she is grateful that Peter sees it differently. She has told nobody else about her family secret: Showing others how deep your wounds are? Explaining to those who luxuriated in life's first feast to their heart's delight that not everyone had the same meal? Inviting judgment from people who've never walked in your shoes? Eventually she ended up taking a trip to China every few years. There she would travel around and spend some time with Liang Yue, who works in her hometown, meeting with her father a few times. As for her mother, to see her or even to hear her hateful words would be like being forced to kiss a sharp knife blade. By ceasing contact she manages to compress her pain in a tight capsule as she keeps the days and nights going, carefully stitching together the pieces of an almost normal life. At forty she still had recurring nightmare of being beaten by her mother. Last time she met with her father, he had a huge scar on his arm. Mother threw a scissor at him during a heated argument.

- They did not ask you any question at the hospital?

- I told them I fell, and hurt my arm on a sharp stone.

For Peter, the solution is clear:

- Your father needs to get out, or your mother should be forced to receive treatment.

It does not work like that in China though. Imperious, quarrelsome and unable to keep any friends, her mother only becomes physically violent with family members. No one can force her to receive any treatment she refuses. Dad is too afraid to leave. She has threatened suicide. In a selfish way for which she blames herself, Maria is glad that Dad stays with her mother. What else is there to do? Prone to doubt, she always finds Peter's moral certainty reassuring. She remembers well-meaning Chinese friends who warned her about "cultural differences" when she was dating Peter. But who else could have been the rock of her life like him, with his patiently explained logic, his consistency and good faith, his empathetic support? Having lived through her mother's volatile and unpredictable explosions, she craves Peter's calmness as some others long for passion and excitement.

An exhilarated Liang Yue picked up Maria from the airport. She had found Han Yang, who still lives in Sichuan, but far away, in Dege, where he has been working at the Tibetan Culture Center after finishing his graduate studies at Southwest University for Nationalities. She had obtained his cell phone number through less than six degrees of separation.

- No, how can I talk about this over the phone? I don't even remember how he looked like. Did he sit in the back of the classroom?

- Yes, he was in our basketball team and our school's marathon champion. How can you forget that?

- Sounds like you had a crush on him! How about going to Dege with me? Is it a beautiful place?

- It is spectacular, but you cannot go there, not this time. There is no flight. It takes two days to get there by bus, more than twenty hours by car with bad road conditions, and the altitude is over 5000 meters. You could lose your baby.

- I need to find out which parent was hitting my cousin, so I know my odds of doing the same thing. I would rather die.

- What difference would that make? What if 99 percent of people in your case do it? You can be one in a million!

- A scientist does not think like that.

- You are not telling me you would get an abortion?

- It is not impossible. Peter has always been pro-choice and we had agreed not to have any


After dinner, Liang Yue sent Han Yang a text message:

"Lin Xuezhao is back in town from the U.S. because she needs to talk to you about her cousin Su Kai. She also wants to see his last letter. She is pregnant."

Maria was incredulous:

- You told him that?

A few hours later, Liang Yue received Han Yang's reply: "I am driving back."

Maria was supposed to meet Han Yang on the terrace of a teahouse overlooking the river, the same river by which they grew up, a tributary of a tributary of the Chang Jiang. It is the oldest teahouse in town, a temple style building dated from the Qing dynasty. Maria walked down a narrow stone-paved street bordered by shacks, a shortcut leading to the riverside. As she entered the teahouse she felt a slight panic. She and Han Yang were only classmates during the first year of high school, as he then moved to the class for the track of liberal arts and social sciences. She did not need to worry though; as she nervously looked around, a man with a crew cut, lean and fit, of medium height, stood up with a smile. Yes, he seemed vaguely familiar and Maria could picture him playing basketball and winning a marathon race.

- I thought you might look for me one day. It took you a long time.

Maria felt relieved that Han Yang did not ask her what she wanted to know about her cousin or why she needed to know it. Without prompting he started to talk about him in a natural tenderhearted way as if he were a dear old friend for both of them.

Although a good student and on track to get into a decent university, Su Kai's grades were not at the point where he would likely be admitted to one of the nation's top universities as expected by his parents. During the final year, the pressure became so crushing that Han Yang needed to talk with him both before and after any exams in order to calm him. During home visits, he explained to his parents that it would be counterproductive to push their son any further. In spite of all this, it was widely known that Su Kai was routinely beaten up by his parents, and no one was empowered to do anything about it. It was culturally acceptable to strike one's children while neighbors looked the other way, even though Su Kai's parents surpassed the norm in terms of severity and frequency, especially considering that Su Kai was so well behaved.

- Where did their expectation come from? Do you think it had anything to do with me? Maria asked a question that had been torturing her for years.

- It is possible. Parents sometimes compete like that. When I heard he was your cousin, I wondered about the same thing. But you shouldn't blame yourself. It wasn't your fault.

- They must believe it is OK to do that. They knew my mother used to hit me.

Maria did not know why she confided in him so easily. She started to cry. Han Yang patted her on her shoulder as if they had been friends for a long time, and poured more tea in her cup.

- What did he say in his last letter? Which parent was beating him?

- I do not have the letter anymore. The police took it away as part of the investigation. He thanked me for helping him live a few months more than he would have but he was simply too tired to go on anymore. He did not blame anyone. He was always so incredibly thoughtful and courteous.

Han Yang talked about the night that he must have relived many times before.

"It was in May, after he did unusually poorly in the mock exam. He entrusted a letter to his best friend and asked him to give it to me the next day only. Around 8pm, his friend became worried and came to see me with the letter. I read it and suddenly remembered that a few days ago a student from another school committed suicide by laying himself on the railway. I ran to the railway close to his home hoping to find him. Suddenly, I heard a siren coming from the direction of the train station and raced as fast as possible to get there. When I arrived, there was a huge commotion. The train had run into someone. It was him... He was not crushed underneath the train though. It dragged him with it... I believe that he hesitated at the last moment and tried to back out, but it was too late. I think his last wish was to live."

Maria gazed at the river and felt herself drifting away. She used to walk by it every day on her way to school and back, sometimes thinking if life became unbearable, jumping into it would be the gentlest way to end it all. It would have been easy: Maria did not know how to swim. She survived, perhaps somehow believing she would be able to go farther away than the river.

- Let him live, said Han Yang in earnest.

- Who? Maria was startled.

- Your child.


Painting by Bendu

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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