This awkward picture is an oil painting of me when I was about 11 years old. Every painting has a story behind it, and here it is. I remember this today only because that’s the first time I felt a strong sympathy towards a man–the artist painting this–who totally despised me and detested his job at hand. If I had been younger, I would have hated such a man, but I had grown to the point that I started to feel things that people don’t express and understood the bigger iceberg through the little tip of ice visible at the top.
It all started from the fact that my mother and I are totally unsuitable to be mother and daughter together. I mean we should be in separate families. My mother likes to dress prettily to visit friends, to talk and gossip, to go to a hair salon to get her hair done, while I’m more of a brainy and even a little nerdy girl who has no interest in anything my mother wants to do. She would be very happy with any of my cousins, but unfortunately she was stuck with me. I refused to accompany her in her hair salon trips–other mother-daughter pairs in the neighborhood often went together and got the discount–and refused to have anything done to my hair; I refused to come to sit with her friends when they come for a visit to talk about meaningless nothing; all the clothes she chose for me I disliked. I like clothes, but not the kind she preferred. She’s great with sports and had won awards in her school days, but I am terrible in anything requires a bodily exertion. She grew up in a subtropical region eating rice and many different fruits, thus she disliked the food in the arid high plateau of north–we lived very close to the Gobi Desert, where we ate wheat, corn, only several kinds of fruits. Winter is four to five months long and for many months the only vegetable or fruits we could have are pickled versions. I love it all but my mother could hardly stand it.
On top of our differences, she disliked children. Being the eldest of 9 kids, my mother took care of her younger siblings, probably starting when she herself was in the crib. Just imagine in the subtropical area, for most of the year except winter time, every kid needs a bath if not two or three bathes every day. In addition, clothes and shoes were made by women themselves; washing and cooking had to be done continuously. The kind of work must be backbreaking and exhausting. No wonder she had no interest in child rearing and how much self sacrifice she had to exercise just to conform to the social norm.
The picture of me was done by Y, who lived not far from us. At the time, we all lived in the apartments provided to the staff by the university, the principle one for the province. Y’s wife Q was a good friend of my mother. Q was such a happy, plump, and loving person that everybody liked. If you ever read “Sense And Sensibility”, Mrs. Palmer is very similar to Q–kind-hearted, a little childish, fun loving, talkative, gregarious. Even the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Palmer is similar to the one between Y and Q. Y and Q loves each other, but Y is also bad tempered and often scolds Q in a disparaging way. I think the reason they got married in the first place is that Q was the only woman who tolerated Y and Y had no choice.
I don’t know what exactly happened, but I guess my parents did some favor for Y and Q. After that, my mother and her good friend Q “conspired” to get Y to do an oil painting of me to make it even. At the time, Y had painted several pretty girls on the campus. For a while, it was an honor to be chosen by Y as his aesthetic subject. For some reason my mother must feel that she wanted to be part of this. If anything else failed, she at least became a owner of one of Y’s pictures. I don’t know how her mind worked, but she must have a reason. My mother was a very pretty woman, but unfortunately the beauty genes didn’t pass on to me. I’m very plain. I guessed that my mother wanted to have herself painted, but due to her age, she could only pass her fancy to me.
Women can be tyrannical as much as men. At first I thought Y, with his temper and his attitude, could withstood his wife’s tyranny, but how wrong I was. Y yielded and I ended up going to their apartment after school every day for two weeks to sit for him. It’s obvious from the very beginning that he disliked plain girls like me and detested this job. The apartment was strewn with paintings of three or four pretty faces of women I knew by sight. I somehow imagined that his wife threatened him with what she could do–to make a scene and to prevent him from painting pretty girls any longer–if he refused to paint me.
So here we were one hated to paint while the other hated to sit for him. At first I reciprocated his arrogance contempt and indifference, but as I sat there I pondered on him, his paintings, his wife, and his family. I felt very sorry for him. Even though he’s living in this backwater province and barely earning a living as a low-paying faculty member, he dreamed of beauty in his art, which was probably the only thing that sustained his spirit every day. All those atrocities life had leveled on him. The province we lived in had a rugged barren surface, mild Gobi Desert weather. If there’s any beauty in the surrounding, it’s a rugged austere beauty, which I suspected he’s not able to admire. He’s from the lush green south, just like my mother. He’s not a child of this tough terrain. His family life must be…. His wife admired and tolerated him in her own garrulous and gossipy ways, which he looked down upon. They had no child, so they adopted a boy. Somehow I felt that even this adoption was something his wife imposed and foisted on him. He never painted boys. I would think he’d rather adopt a girl, a pretty girl of course. I felt so sorry for him that I almost cried once. Fortunately he’s too contemptuous towards me to notice.
The painting was so bad that I was ashamed to look at it. If he had showed his anger in painting me a witch or a she-devil, I would have felt better–at least some true emotion was expressed. Instead it was a painting of emotionless dull figure with a wooden face that fit for a garbage bin.
I had to pretend that I liked it since I felt so bad for the painter. Somehow I sympathized him more than I sympathized my grandma, who raised 9 kids through wars and political unrest and poverty, more than I sympathized my mother who had all her dreams thwarted, more than I sympathized those immigrants I knew who struggled with their life in New York and New Jersey, more than I sympathized myself.