SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
KAT CHOW: Hi.
MERAJI: (Laughter) I know who you are, but for the audience who may not know you, can you introduce yourself?
CHOW: My name is Kat Chow. I am a writer and author of the book "Seeing Ghosts." And you might recognize my voice from being a CODE SWITCH reporter.
MERAJI: Kat, Gene and I started at CODE SWITCH at the same time, way back in 2013 when the podcast was just a twinkle in our eyes. She left after a few years to write a memoir, "Seeing Ghosts." It's about many things, one of which is how her immediate family - that's Kat, her two older sisters and her father - grieved the loss of her mother. Kat was only 13 when she died.
CHOW: (Reading) It's not incorrect to say that for years, the way my family grieved my mother was to avoid acknowledging her altogether. It's not incorrect to say that we hardly invoked her name or told stories about her.
MERAJI: Not only does "Seeing Ghosts" acknowledge Kat's mother and invoke all of her names in a way that's funny and irreverent and incredibly soulful, it's a story about race and identity, and it's a coming-of-age story, too. Kat takes us into her world as a teenager, the youngest of three sisters still living at home with her immigrant dad, a very different home after her mom's death.
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MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I sat down with Kat Chow - or, actually, we both stood separately in our respective closets - to talk about her new memoir. And I started by asking how she describes "Seeing Ghosts" because, as I'm wont to say all the time on the show, it's complicated.
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CHOW: This story is about my family's loss across generations. For a long time, I never really understood how I learned to grieve because it felt so specific to my family. And I wasn't sure if it was a product of, you know, my parents being immigrants from Hong Kong or China or if it was just so specific to the way my dad is. And so this book examines a lot of questions of how my father learned to grieve and how my mother learned to grieve and experience loss. We just didn't experience loss as what we lost when a person was no longer there but the loss of a country, a place, a sense of home, a sense of self to a degree.
MERAJI: Did you write this book for your mom? Was your mom the audience? Because you're often speaking directly to her in the book.
CHOW: Yeah, it kind of felt as though this book was an extended conversation with my mom. There are a lot of passages that have this you form because when someone passes, they leave so many questions. And I wanted to try and take this concept of - you know, in Chinese culture and in a lot of East Asian cultures, there's this idea of ancestor worship. So when someone passes, they become this potential spirit where, in my family at least, if you didn't appease them or you didn't do certain grieving rituals or you didn't think of them enough, then their spirit, as it goes, would be restless. And then also my mom, she had such a weird sense of humor. I mean, it was beautiful. It was macabre. It was kind of messed up.
MERAJI: Dark, yeah.
CHOW: Yeah, it was dark. I mean, there was one incident when I was a child where even before she knew she was dying and before any of us knew, she made this joke about how when she died, she wanted me to have her body stuffed so that it could sit in my future apartment so that she could always watch over me.
MERAJI: (Laughter) Taxidermy is a theme in your book...
CHOW: That is just...
MERAJI: ...Spoiler alert.
CHOW: Taxidermy is such a big theme, yeah, because it's such a good metaphor for grief.
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CHOW: (Reading) Your taxidermic self would return to me after we took you off life support and Daddy ordered an autopsy - and horrified by the gross disruption to your physical self, hissed that because of this, your spirit might never rest. This image of you roaming and anxious stayed with me over the years, so much that sometimes I would discover you and your rigor mortis, softened slightly, appearing suddenly. There you were when I was 16 in one of the backseats of your minivan during my drives to school, supervising as I checked my blind spots before I switched lanes. There you were, trapped in the longest version of hide and seek, tucked behind one of the curtains in our living room, with your feet protruding from the bottom of the drapes, ready to leap out, laughing hysterically and shouting, you found me as I passed. I found you. Yes. I am always finding you.
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CHOW: You know, that image of my mom as this creepy sort of stuffed taxidermic ghost, I also found it really funny just because it was so ridiculous. And I used that as this way of showing that ghosts are sort of, you know, in my family, at least, a way to show memory and grief and how it's always there and how it can kind of come back and you experience it so, so viscerally.
MERAJI: Kat told me that while her memoir is an extended conversation with her mom, a way to answer all the questions that her mom's death left in its wake, she also had other readers in mind when she was writing.
CHOW: In a way, I was writing it for myself, for when I was younger. But also, there's some Cantonese in the book, and it's not translated. It's not made to look different, so you know that it's a foreign language. And it was little acts like this where I sort of just made the decision where, great, if a reader experiences this and they also know Cantonese, then they'll be able to understand this, and this can be sort of like our close relationship as author and reader. And then also, if they're not an English speaker, hopefully the context just shows enough.
MERAJI: A Cantonese speaker.
CHOW: Yes, a Cantonese speaker. It felt really important to do that and to make little choices where I wasn't explaining Chinese culture or specific Chinese grief rituals, because I sort of wanted to just say in this very strong way, you know, this is how it was for us, and to not have to kind of pander to a white audience.
MERAJI: Your parents' first language is Cantonese. And in the book, you say fairly often it's not a language you're totally comfortable in. It's something that you're always trying to get better at. And there's this beautiful passage in the book where you talk about your mother's name, Florence. And I was hoping, if you have the book there, you might read the passage.
CHOW: Yeah. (Reading) My theory is that she chose Florence because she'd admired Florence Nightingale. There might have been something about Nightingale being a famous nurse, a caretaker who was also known for her contributions to mathematics and medicine, that appealed to my mother - groundbreaking and could not be swayed by what women did or didn't do in that era. Nobody in my family called my mother Florence, though. She was Mui Mui to her siblings, Mommy to Steph, Caroline and me, and Ummo (ph) to our father. It took me until adulthood to ask after her first name in Cantonese or to learn the Chinese characters - Yu (ph) Bo Mui. I already had the vocabulary to describe her, so why did I need more? Why would I bother looking outside myself for the words that she might have identified most as her own?
I had Daddy teach me, years after your death, to pronounce your name. Bo Mui, your husband said. Bo Mui, I said. We repeated this for a couple of minutes, and the whole time, I was sure I was saying it wrong. After all, I couldn't get my own name right.
MERAJI: What did learning the Chinese characters and how your mom pronounced her name in Cantonese - how did that help you know your mom in a deeper way, do you think?
CHOW: It was her first language, and I think that there is so much that is lost in the fact that I cannot speak Cantonese. And I think about this really often. My mom - she was fluent in English, and my dad, too. But there are so many moments where I keep thinking, you know, could we express ourselves better if we spoke the same language, if I was fluent? And I have tried for so many years. I want to be fluent, and I want to say that one day I will be, but there are so many gaps in the language that we use, the slang we use across generations, even. And it really - I mean, it just shows the distance, to not be able to know that language.
MERAJI: Yeah. Has learning more Cantonese changed how you feel about your identity? Has it helped you feel more comfortable being Chinese American?
CHOW: I think I've always felt pretty comfortable, you know, with my Chinese American identity and specifically, you know, being the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, too. And it feels as though Cantonese specifically is being eroded upon, and Mandarin as a dialect is becoming more prominent. And so, I mean, in a way, it also feels as though I need to learn it, and it feels very urgent to sort of retain, you know, part of my family's history, which is both of my parents left China and came to Hong Kong because of the Communist Party and to flee communism. And that's such a common story for a lot of people who are Cantonese and from Hong Kong. So it felt sort of defining. But learning it, even now, I mean, I wish I could speak it better. And I would have such better interviews with my aunt if I could.
CHOW: I mean, I'd also learn much more gossip, too, which just sounds fun.
MERAJI: I'm with you 100%. This is why I'm, like, trying to perfect my Spanish, and then next, Farsi. Another thing in your book, another theme besides language, is food. Food is a character in the book - you know, meals that you ate with your family or meals that you prepared together. There were so many thorough descriptions of meals. It was like I was right next to you, eating with you. I absolutely loved that.
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CHOW: (Reading) I did not mention to my father that it was my 15th birthday. For much of the evening, I thought he'd forgotten. He and I sat beneath the fluorescent kitchen light, slurping a broth he'd made by simmering pork bones and mustard greens. We ate char siu (ph) he reheated in the toaster oven, and we spooned steamed eggs with scallions and white pepper onto our bowls of rice.
After dinner, I turned the channel from the financial news to "The Simpsons." My father pushed aside envelopes to make room on the table. He pulled an ice cream cake from the freezer. At Steph and Caroline's encouragement, we made ice cream cake last year. Mommy did it the years before. He spent hours making this cake. While I was at school, he bought a dozen eggs and a couple of cartons of blackberry and rocky road ice cream, and he set to work steaming sheets of ma lai go. This sponge cake was one of his favorite treats to get from Chinese bakeries, and in the absence of any near our home, he sated his cravings by spending the occasional afternoon at the stove with his industrial steamers from Lotus Garden, recreating his childhood snack. Happy birthday, he said.
MERAJI: Why so much food in this book, Kat?
CHOW: (Laughter) I mean, the main reason is I just love food so much, and it's always been this love language within my family. My dad has always loved food. He might not be what many would consider the best chef. I mean, like, I think he loves to try new foods. And growing up, he - for a relatively short time, a few years - had a restaurant, a Chinese restaurant. And that was such a defining thing for him because his dad also had restaurants in Cuba.
My grandfather was one of many thousands of Chinese immigrants who left, you know, the Pearl River Delta area of China and went to Cuba to earn money and send it back to China. And my grandfather lived there and died there in the 1920s, '30s, '40s. And all my dad really knew about his father was that he worked in restaurants. And so it was really important for my dad to also have a restaurant to try and understand his father.
So I really saw food as this opening of being able to see the ways in which my dad attached memories to certain dishes - like, you know, joong, which is sort of, like, this wonderful, delicious, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves that's steamed or boiled, and egg custard tarts, for example - where I just saw it bring about so much nostalgia, and it really took me being an adult to realize that the reason why he opened a restaurant was to be able to put himself in his father's shoes. And for a long time, I didn't understand why I was so drawn to working in a restaurant in high school, too. And it was because I really wanted to understand my dad to a degree.
MERAJI: Definitely. And of course, I'm reading your book with my own lens and my own personal issues, but I was like, oh, you know, I wonder if Kat is writing so much about food because maybe her language skills are a little bit lacking, and food is a total link, and it's a total cultural connection, regardless of whether you are proficient in your parents' language or your heritage language. You always have food to fall back on.
CHOW: Yes. And it's the way that I can also take care of my dad and also my, you know, people in my life and the way that they take care of me too, where - I mean, in high school, it felt so important, where I was working at this Chinese restaurant. At the end of each of my shifts, the owner would just rush over and give me so much of the not-Americanized Chinese food - things that my dad missed, but we couldn't find in Connecticut because our family was so isolated.
CHOW: And I would bring that home for him, and we would eat these soups together at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. at night in our kitchen. And it just felt like this way that I could take care of him because I never understood how. And it felt like, you know, there was just so much silence, Shereen, growing up in my house, that was - it was really painful. And it felt like food and bringing these things home for him were a way that I could show him that I cared, even if, you know, the next minute we were arguing about something or just unable to speak.
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MERAJI: All right, when we come back, we are going even deeper into Kat's new memoir, "Seeing Ghosts." And if you thought we were done with the subject of taxidermy, you were mistaken.
CHOW: One day, I came home from college and went into the basement while my dad and I were cooking. And I just found this fish that he had taxidermied himself, and it was so horrifying. It was so scary.
MERAJI: That's after the break. Stay with us.
Shereen - just Shereen - CODE SWITCH. And I'm back talking to author and former CODE SWITCH teammate Kat Chow about her new memoir, "Seeing Ghosts."
You know, I've been asking you all these questions because it is code switch that surround identity and how losing your mom has affected the way you think of your identity in terms of race and culture, etc.
CHOW: Yeah, yeah.
MERAJI: But what I'm hearing you say is grief is a really big part of your identity.
CHOW: Yes. I think that when you lose a parent in general, you know, it becomes such a big part of who you are because - sorry - I'm getting really emotional. It makes you - when you lose a parent - I mean, they define you so much in terms of how they see the world, how they move about it. And when you lose them, you have to fill in the gaps that they've left behind to understand the traditions from which they came.
And my family's immigrant-ness and also my family's loss, they feel so intertwined because there was also so much loss that came with leaving, you know, their respective towns in Hong Kong and the people they left behind. But also, there was so much longing, too. And I think that - I mean, I experience grief in so many different ways in that I have so much longing for my parents and to be closer to my dad, for example, or to have my mom around.
But they also experienced so much longing for their parents - and, you know, my father for his father, whose remains were in Cuba, my father for his mother who died in Hong Kong - and my dad had no idea at the time - my mom for, you know, a father who could really embrace her and believe in her and for her mother, who also died young. And I think that it's so integral to who I am, just to experience and understand the ways in which loss shaped my entire family.
MERAJI: I have to know how your sisters and your dad felt about...
MERAJI: ...You writing about the family story.
CHOW: They were so supportive, surprisingly. I mean...
CHOW: ...I knew my sisters would be. Yeah, yeah. My sisters and I are really close. And I had to interview them a lot for this book. And even before I decided to really sit down and start writing it, I asked my sisters and my dad if it was OK. And they all gave me their blessing with the idea that, you know, this is just one version of our family's story, and it's also just one version of your story.
And my dad was surprisingly chill about it. I mean, he and I have a complicated relationship, which the book really gets into. But...
MERAJI: It does.
CHOW: ...He has always been very matter of fact about how, you know, it is the way it is. And, you know, I interviewed him quite a bit for this story. And I also allowed my family to read pretty close to final drafts. And we could talk about, you know, what they weren't, you know, exactly comfortable with or what they were comfortable with. And they had very little to share. My dad - I mean, I bet you feel like - you maybe feel like you know my dad by now. I don't know.
MERAJI: I do. I feel like I know him because he also reminds me very much of my dad, which...
MERAJI: ...I'm hoping we can get into later. But like...
MERAJI: ...Yeah. Keep going. Yes.
MERAJI: I feel like I know your dad (laughter).
CHOW: Yeah. I mean, so I gave him my final copy of my book. And I was so nervous about how he would respond just because, you know, I just never know how to expect what he'll think about something. And he sent me this email that said book review in the subject line. And then it was just a list of page numbers and tiny, tiny, tiny little, you know, corrections...
CHOW: ...Something like I was in the car also, or, you know, our kitchen counter is not...
CHOW: ...Linoleum. It's Formica. Yeah. But I also interpreted this to be, you know, him really closely reading it.
CHOW: And I thought that was such a gift.
MERAJI: Well, that is such a wonderful way of interpreting his criticism.
MERAJI: It sounds like something a therapist might help you figure out. I don't know.
MERAJI: I think that I would take criticism like that very much to heart. But I love how you framed it as him reading it very closely and really caring about the material.
MERAJI: Was there a favorite scene in this book, one that...
MERAJI: ...You had the most fun with?
CHOW: I think that the chapter that I love most is the one about this fish that my dad taxidermied (ph) himself.
MERAJI: Yes. I loved that chapter, too.
CHOW: Yeah. I mean, one day, I came home from college and went into the basement while my dad and I were cooking. And I just found this fish that he had taxidermied himself. And it was so horrifying. It was so scary but also strange and concerning.
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CHOW: (Reading) The fish was positioned on a small table on top of two wooden planks that served as a makeshift stand. Its eyes were congealed - its scales peeling and fins flaky, as though it had been deep-fried or dipped in Elmer's glue. Its mouth hung open, which gave it the appearance that it was mid-gasp.
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CHOW: (Reading) A couple of pliers and screwdrivers sat next to it. I tensed and backed away, though I suppose this wasn't in the realm of abnormal. Nothing was when it came to my father or his house. I was confused, though, that I couldn't smell the fish. Perhaps the scent of the basement's mildew and the cat's litter box, which my father infrequently cleaned, were too pungent.
(Reading) Why do you have a fish down here? - I yelled. I grabbed the pan and ran upstairs. It's from when Stephanie and Steven (ph) took me deep-sea fishing. What are you doing with it? I paced the kitchen to steady myself. My father stood at the counter and mixed flour and water with his hands. He shrugged. Well, I taxidermied it.
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CHOW: I also write about taxidermy as this construct of loss and grief and memory and what it means to sort of do this thing to try and preserve something that was once alive, you know? You're trying to make it resemble what it looked like when it was living. And that's so hard.
CHOW: And that, to me, felt like such a metaphor for writing and also this book and also my dad's grief, too. And so I found that really satisfying. And I read so many books about taxidermy...
CHOW: ...Which I thought was really cool. And...
CHOW: ...I don't know. That fish is still in our basement. And everybody's...
MERAJI: Oh, it is.
CHOW: ...Everybody is so afraid to touch it.
MERAJI: He must have done a good job...
MERAJI: ...Taxidermying (ph) it if it's still there...
MERAJI: ...And it's not rotten.
CHOW: It's definitely rotten.
CHOW: I mean, this is really, really horrifying for people to hear. But the eyes are still there. They're - it's in varying states of decay. It's in rough shape. I mean, I - maybe - I don't know. This has given me inspiration that I think maybe next time I'm there I'm going to just ask for someone's help - maybe my husband can help me throw it out. I don't know.
MERAJI: (Laughter) I wouldn't do that...
MERAJI: ...If I was you, not - after reading this book and knowing how your dad likes to hold on to things, I would be very afraid...
MERAJI: ...To throw anything out.
CHOW: Yeah. I mean, it's just - it's such a, I think, response to trauma for him. He cannot let go of things. And maybe to a degree, writing this book, it shows that I can't either. I don't know (laughter).
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MERAJI: Kat, I'm so glad we did this. I loved the book. And I've been looking forward to talking to you about it for a while now. So thank you.
CHOW: Thank you so much for having me on, Shereen. It feels definitely like a homecoming.
MERAJI: And if y'all don't know, that was Kat Chow, former CODE SWITCHer and author of the new memoir, "Seeing Ghosts."
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MERAJI: And that's our show.
As always, we want to hear from you. You can follow us on Twitter and IG. We're @nprcodeswitch. Subscribe to the newsletter at npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter. Or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry, with help from Leah Donnella and me. It was edited by Leah. And a shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Jess Kung, Christina Cala, Natalie Escobar, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. And our intern is Carmen Molina Acosta. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
Gene'll be back next week. Peace.
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