In a childhood game, one of those outrageously cruel yet absurdly innocent games that only children are capable of, my mother would crush snails to death.
“But why?” I asked my mother, appalled. My whole life I knew my mother as an endlessly kind woman who was beloved by all my teachers at parent-teacher conferences and had Banana Republic store credit—not someone who pulverized slow-moving minuscule mollusks for sport.
My mom shrugged.
“We didn’t have much to play with in the first place. We would find things in the field. Like snails. If we weren’t out there, we were on our bicycles, or on the monkey bars, or playing table tennis…”
So she and her friends crushed snails.
This is how it worked: you and a friend would each take a small, thumb-sized snail. You would then use your thumbs to press their shells right up against each other until one burst and died. The one that burst, lost. To win, you would have to choose a strong-shelled snail, or press your snail really hard against the other’s—it was not uncommon for the reigning snail to face countless combatants before bursting, at which point there would be a new snail to beat. “Would you feel sad at all,” I asked, “about killing the snails?”
“Not really,” said my mom. She laughed. “We were so dumb. We would feel happy!”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh my god.”
I pictured my mother as a young girl with her long braided hair, concentrating her strength on the shell at her fingertips until it cracked, revealing glitteringly translucent spineless flesh. I imagined her joy. I then remembered that I also had a childhood affinity for killing small things. I liked stomping on fireflies because I liked the way their light seeped like blood onto the sidewalk. Genetics?
When I arrived in Paris, I knew I had to live up to my mother’s name as a snail killer. Paris—where snails are crushed, pan-fried, and served with butter for the purposes of consumption. Escargot is the most expensive way to humiliate the snail. First it was crushed by my mother, now it would be crushed by my powerful jaws. I would be the ultimate snail queen; my mother’s daughter, truly—so when I was invited to dinner I chose a restaurant that I made sure served escargot.
“Les escargots, s’il vous plait,” I said confidently to the waiter. “Such a tourist,” said my dinner companion once the waiter left with our orders. “Better tourist than exile,” I replied. “Better exile than stupid,” he said. You’re paying,” I said. (We ended up splitting the bill.)
The plate of snails arrived with little forks to fish the snail meat from its shell. What emerged, after some chopstick-like maneuvering, was a piece of meat too small and vulnerable-looking to be feared or hated. A homeless snail. I resisted the urge to challenge my dinner-mate to a snail crushing contest. The shells were so delicate, the veneer of butter so alluring—the snap of its exoskeleton would be so sweet.
My mother moved to America from China in the 90s. She had left behind her family, her friends, her snails, everything, to move to the states with my father in what I felt was a dashingly romantic move but was actually a culmination of a need to escape and a want for an American education. So they moved to Texas. Very American. They moved to Texas and they raised their daughters to speak in a language that was not their first, a language that, even after a decade of immersion, they did not grow up with and therefore did not spend a childhood with. I grew up speaking their second language. I grew up speaking a language that was once alien to my parents, and for that reason I always felt that I was something of an alien too, a strange baby, something of a linguistic orphan. And because I never really learned Chinese (they taught my older sister but then I came along and life was too Texan for them by that point), I always feared I would never be able to truly communicate with my parents. Even if I learned Chinese now, because I did not spend a childhood with it, the Chinese I would speak would not be the Chinese my parents speak. It would be an academic sort of Chinese, one steeped in grammatical rules, forever self-consciously and cautiously spoken. I find myself using apps on my phone to learn Chinese and when I text my parents to show off simple sentences like “I am female person” they respond in long streams of characters that I can only understand through Google translate. Not pure. When I practiced my Chinese while working at the Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, the Chinese customers laughed at me partly because they were amused by my American accent and partly because they were frustrated that the closest thing to a Chinese worker in the bookstore couldn’t really help them. Trust me, I am frustrated too! And I am sorry, but those postcards cannot be stamped!
My parents speak English so well that I forget altogether that my parents and I are on two different wavelengths of language. There is one linguistic rift created naturally by time and generation, the other by our varying mother tongues. My mother did not originally speak in my mother tongue. My mother is my mother and my father is my father but sometimes they do not understand what I say and sometimes I do not understand what they say and perhaps this was why I fled to French altogether, abandoning English, abandoning Chinese. There’s a passage from Losing North by France-transposed Canadian Nancy Huston that particularly moved me:
The truth, however, is that your soul, like your body, has moved away from its point of departure. And the way comes when you’re forced to recognize that you no longer share the values of the people who brought you into the world, talked and sang to you as a child, cuddled and fed you in the warmth and comfort of the family home. Even if you haven’t been initiated into the intricacies of a foreign language, you no longer speak their tongue.
When I read this I felt like that exposed snail. My parents’ daughter is in Paris with an impulsively short haircut. Perhaps the snail is the family crest of exodus.
Anyway, I called my mother that evening.
“Mom, I ate snails,” I said. “Now snails probably hate both of us.” I dropped my purse on the bed. “Maybe they’ll gather together and exact revenge.” I put down the phone and turned on the speakerphone. “Are snails considered pescetarian?” I asked. “Are they insects?” I paused in the act of taking off my earrings. “Mom?”
Through the phone’s speakers I heard her laughing and all of a sudden I felt very lonely standing there in my room, snails swimming in my stomach.