It’s early morning in Alameda, California, and I’m in the kitchen with my mother. She’s wearing the white, quilted robe she’s had since I was a child, and she’s sitting at her relegated seat at the head of the table. Peering over her red-rimmed eyeglasses, she taps away at something on her phone. Then I hear the sound of the opening music from her favorite YouTuber’s channel.
The vlogger is a woman who lives on a farm in Henan, China. Her handle and nickname is Ni Tu De Qing Xiang, which directly translates to “the soft, clean scent of soil.” Qing Xiang’s channel features videos of her cooking elaborately prepared meals using ingredients she grows on her land. Her son, whose name is Er Zhou (“second pig”), appears often in the videos, as does her father-in-law, her daughters, sisters, cousins, and mother-in-law, who doesn’t say much — she just pops homemade dumplings filled with fried rice; tomato, egg and spinach soup; and watermelon slices positively bursting with juice in her mouth instead. Most of Qing Xiang’s videos begin with her outdoors, picking fruits and vegetables from her farm.
A symphony of cicadas in the rippling summer air is so loud in the background that we have to strain to hear Qing Xiang speaking — subtitles typical of Chinese TV certainly help. But even absent the cicadas, her dialect is barely recognizable to the untrained ear. Someone unfamiliar with the tonalities of Mandarin might think Qing Xiang speaks with a rapid-fire Beijing accent. But my mom knows the language she’s speaking. Mom’s father was from Henan, and he spoke the same dialect. When Qing Xiang says “zhe hao qe” — “this tastes good” — Mom and I look at each other and just laugh. She sounds exactly like my grandfather.
Qing Xiang’s videos remind Mom of family and her childhood, comfort and security in her home country of Taiwan, where she spent the first 34 years of her life. And they provide her with an escape, a distraction from her breast cancer and chemotherapy.
Cancer breeds the purest form of loneliness within a person. Mom says no one in her life knows what she’s going through, and she’s right. I live in New York, and visit California as often as possible. I deal with the news of Mom’s cancer and the events thereafter from afar, reaching out from one coast from the other, but never quite grasping it.
She’s weak and tired all the time, achy and sore. Such a state of malaise inevitably leads to intense bouts of depression — and Mom is largely alone on a day-to-day basis. Dad does as much as he can, but Mom needs someone by her side constantly, because she can barely perform such a simple task as refilling the water in her thermos. Mom is not herself, trapped inside an unfamiliar brain that becomes so scrambled when she has to make decisions, answer questions or read e-mails; she’s all but given up on it. Chemo has changed her. Now she is withdrawn but emotional, nostalgic and teary, rather than stoic and polite, as is her usual nature.
Mom has nothing but time to think, except when she sleeps, which is often. She grows dizzy and disoriented if she watches TV for too long, but is so bored lying around the house that she becomes antsy, itching to take a walk but feeling too weak to get up. She’s also begun having night terrors. At three or four in the morning she cries out with a visceral and frightening yelp. What she’s dreaming, or thinking about, I can’t say. But something frightens her so much that she lets loose the most animal, guttural yell, which inevitably wakes her up. The noise is almost immediately followed by the jolly jingle opening music of Qing Xiang’s videos. Mom watches a few episodes until she is soothed back to sleep. When she’s alone and homesick, longing for someone who isn’t there, she watches a video and thinks about Taipei.
“I think by watching Qing Xiang, I can use my five senses to bring back memories of my youth to comfort my body and mind during the chemo treatment,” Mom says.
My mother has made a real connection with Qing Xiang, whose approach to YouTube videos is simple. She records her activities on a day-to-day basis, with a focus on food. Many of her videos are tutorials that teach her viewers how to make regional dishes: spicy ground pork with tofu and scallion, a steamed bun called mantou that she rolls out by hand. But other videos of Qing Xiang’s depict her lifestyle: farming her land, picking crops, sitting down to dinner with her family. Mom says the farmer has the kind of idyllic life she dreams of, one that is completely different from her surroundings in the city of Alameda, where she lives with my dad. Qing Xiang’s kitchen — with a wood-fire oven and plenty of gleaming white counter space — the tools she uses — woks, steel spatulas — and, of course, the ingredients — ginger, five spice, star anise, tofu — are all relics of times gone by with Mom’s family.
Mom’s mother was from Shanghai. She moved to Taiwan with my grandfather and the rest of the nationalists who fled mainland China in the fifties. My grandmother used to spend all day at the market, shopping for dinner, then cooking. Our family, comprised of around five people during lean times when some were out of town and 17 when all were present, never missed a meal together if they could help it. We all sat at the round table inside grandma and grandpa’s home in Xing Pei Tou and spun the lazy Susan back and forth, choosing which dish we wanted to dip our chopsticks into next: a bite of rice here, a scoop of eggplant there, some green beans, perhaps a spoonful of fresh chicken soup made from scratch and dotted with thick, white chunks of turnip. Meals served there were a physical manifestation of my grandmother’s love. She put care into every dish, and it gave her a real thrill to nourish us, her offspring.
My mother’s father was a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, and Mom grew up on a military compound. She says the community on the compound was a tight-knit one, and each family had a plot of land upon which to farm. After school, she walked to her neighbors’ plot, took off her shoes, rolled up her pants and dug out yams from the earth, then brought the fruits of her labor home to her mother, who made sweet soup with the yams, ginger and brown sugar. As she watches Qing Xiang’s videos, Mom is flooded with recollections of that particular time in her young life. In many episodes on the channel, Qing Xiang is barefoot, with her son and daughter also unshod, digging up fruits and vegetables from the ground. With the legs of her pants rolled up to her knees, she follows her husband, who drives a truck which holds the new soil, creating ripe land for fresh crops. In Qing Xiang’s world, everyone pitches in. She’s constantly surrounded by family members helping her with farm work, and no one has a problem lending a hand. Qing Xiang asks her neighbor to borrow a shovel in one episode; Mom is sucked into a time vortex, reminded of the lifestyle on the military compound.
“Back then, it was I help you, you help me,” Mom says. “Now people just hire somebody.”
When Qing Xiang serves plate after heaping plate of food to her kids, Mom is reminded of her mother teasing her father, since he was from the countryside and she was a city girl. Giggling to herself, Mom points out how Qing Xiang’s mother-in-law holds chopsticks in the cradle of her rounded pinky finger and says my grandfather kept his chopsticks in the crook of his fourth finger while he ate dumplings with one hand and chewed on garlic root with the other.
Once the video ends, Mom comes out of the memories, looks around her and realizes once more her reality: it’s time for a weekly chemo session. She receives chemotherapy at an infusion center in Oakland. The administration of chemotherapy itself, although apparently technologically advanced, seems almost medieval. The nurse feels around on Mom’s collarbone, looking for a hole inside the port that’s been surgically inserted underneath her skin. Once the nurse has found it, she punctures it, hard, with a needle that connects to a string of clear tubes that funnel in the poison. Mom always winces at this stage and drives her thumbnail deep into her pointer finger — a tactic she insists helps distract her from the discomfort. More pain to combat pain.
As the chemo flows in, Mom curls up in an enormous, cream-colored leather La-Z-Boy chair with her feet up. She grabs her iPhone and the six-note jingle of Qing Xiang’s channel comes through. I’ve gotten used to sidling up next to Mom whenever I hear the intro music — a reminder that now is the time to quiet the questions and worries bouncing around inside the walls of both of our minds, substituting instead the hypnotic rhythm of Qing Xiang’s disembodied hands throwing a wooden spoon against the walls of a wok that holds thick, green spring onions glossy with sesame oil. We listen to Qing Xiang’s voice, low and deep, as she describes her activities for the day. In this episode, she’s making peanut oil. She and some family members pile into a van and travel to a refinery that looks more like Bilbo’s house in “Lord of the Rings.” It’s shrouded in dusty darkness, and the machinery is old and rusted. The family dumps loads of peanuts into a sill that produces bucket loads of peanut oil. Qing Xiang, her daughter, and her sister haul gallons of the stuff back into their van.
After chemo’s done, we head home. There’s a knock at the door — it’s a group of Mom’s family members, here to do what they can. Her niece drops by on a weekly basis, toting metal trays packed to the brim with stewed beef, pork broth and sweet rice porridge made from scratch. Mom’s nephew, his wife and their two young children stop by with more soup — this time, in the form of jiggling, single-serving gelatinous tubes housed within snack-size plastic bags. They sit in a circle on the floor and pray for Mom in Chinese. After a round of mumbled amens, Mom looks up and says that prayer made her heart feel better. But the family can’t stay for too long. Mom’s doctor told her not to hang around children, for their young, strong bodies can ward off illness that her frail shell pumped full of chemo cannot.
When I’m not with her, I imagine Mom adjusting her brown beanie, burrowing underneath the covers on the couch and tapping the YouTube app on her phone. I wonder what’s worse, the physical or emotional pain. We human beings are all looking for someone to love and take care of us; especially in sickness, when we so often revert back to childlike tendencies, hoping Mom and Dad will read us a book, kiss us on the forehead and tuck us in. No matter what age we are, loneliness is loneliness. It sticks with momentary pain, like a needle administering medicine.
From my own home in Brooklyn, I click on a Qing Xiang video just to feel some familiarity. The farmer is surrounded by her family, laughing as they take pictures of each other on the farm. I finally understand where my mother is coming from. She just wants to feel like someone she knows and trusts is by her side, giving her food and comfort.