Face Value: On My Mother’s Obsession With Luck

The hospital where the procedure took place had unswept laminate flooring and didn’t believe in anesthesia for such a simple procedure. My mother had only told me of her plans that same morning, and it wasn’t until I sat in the worn exam chair that I began to worry about what my face would look like after the procedure. It was too late; the doctor pointed the laser beam at me. I cried out at its sudden, burning sensation.

“Come on,” he said, “that didn’t really hurt.”

My mother had been keeping a ledger of my good and bad fortune throughout my childhood, and she didn’t like what she saw. The moles on my face, she determined, were the cause of the bad luck: I’d tripped down the concrete stairs outside our apartment complex when I was five, requiring staples in my head; I’d gotten an ‘F’ in Algebra in eighth grade. Most worrying of all, I tended easily to tears, which she attributed to the mole that lined up with my left iris and two other moles that followed my tear tracks. I understood: It was a tantalizing thought, to believe that avoiding misfortune could be so simple a matter as changing a face.

The mole removed from under my eye is called a ku zhi—a crying mole—and my mother had one of her own removed when she was young. She’d cried a lot, too—not that it could be blamed singularly on the mole. Her childhood coincided with the Cultural Revolution. My maternal grandmother, who had once been associated with the Nationalists, was forced to write self-denunciation letters late into the night to prove her loyalty to the Communist Party. On sweltering summer days, my grandfather, a minor town official, was paraded through the streets in chains and a dunce cap, upon which was scrawled a litany of his failures. After a 10-year period in which higher education was devalued, the college entrance exam was finally reinstated in time for my mother to take it. But when she sat for the test, she failed three years in a row, the last time because, frozen with anxiety, she started the exam 30 minutes late.

When my parents emigrated to Birmingham in 1988 for my father’s graduate studies, the bad luck continued. For many years, they struggled to raise a child and send money back home, all on a single student stipend and the money cobbled together from their jobs at Asian fusion restaurants. Though my mother had studied English back in China, she found that she could hardly summon the confidence to speak a word aloud in Alabama. The American prosperity they’d dreamed of seemed inconceivable amidst their improvised life. All my childhood, she poured over our grocery store receipts and protested if they overcharged by even a nickel. Perhaps a different kind of person would have spun the narrative as an unfortunate collision with history, but instead she became obsessed with luck.

Very early on in their time in America, my parents were converted to Christianity by an elderly white neighbor in Birmingham. They were given Christian names and baptized under the hot Alabama sun. My mother is a devout believer, one who kneels to pray before bed every night and hums Chinese hymns around our house. But even as she nodded along to pastors railing against false idols and superstitions, she had no problem returning home to her own. She worried whenever the leaves of our lucky bamboo plant began to dry. Our aquarium was endlessly shifted around the house for better feng shui (to the dismay of our fish). Her devotion to her idea of luck was so primal that the Christian God’s demands didn’t apply: He would understand that she was simply keeping her bases covered.

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