Once I was old enough to pillage my mother's wardrobe, I'd slide open the mirrored doors of her closet and plunge my hands into the piles of clothing — velvet, satin, cotton — all stuffed into shelving or crammed on a hanging rod. I'd fumble to distinguish each garment, blindly puzzling through her collection of black clothing by texture. A familiar button could identify a blouse, the softest angora set apart a sweater. The difficulty in finding any one piece was a complaint I heard when I visited her bedroom in the mornings before school, when she dressed for work with a mix of irritation and good humor: "Every single thing in here is black! Cannot find anything!" And yet she continued to buy black and to wear black cut into the shapes she favored: elegantly simple, never skintight. I could never tell when she was wearing something new, because her sleek silhouette was like a cutout from a sheet of construction paper; the tops, bottoms, and dresses were undifferentiated in their darkness. Occasionally her friend Shirley — another Taiwanese immigrant, and the only friend my mother ever made in America — would coax her into buying something patterned or colorful, but the foreign object would languish unworn until it ultimately wound up in the closet of an auntie whose style was not quite so funereal.
My mother, who grew up in Taiwan and immigrated with my father to the United States in the early '80s, has never been to New York. However, she knew before arriving in America that while New York was not its political capital, it was considered by most to be its cultural heart. Her only experiences with that larger-than-life city are gleaned from fashion magazines, TV, and movies. And while she has never explicitly said to me that she tries to dress like a New Yorker, I've watched her imitate the sophistication of a stereotypical upper-class Manhattanite since I was a child and wore garage-sale clothing. My parents dreamed of upward mobility but also fantasized about being able to eat Pizza Hut whenever they wanted.
My mother didn't wear much black when she lived in Taiwan. In a country that is also a tropical island practically on top of the equator, much of the year is spent desperately trying to avoid heat stroke. Old photos I've seen of her are images of her in
white blouses and skirts in orange, brown, and mustard hues. She was allowed to wear jeans only after she nearly died in a scooter accident — my grandmother, who had forbidden the casual bottoms, brought a pair of them to the hospital and gave them to my mother, weeping, when she finally came to. And yet I've never seen my mother in jeans. They were never part of her "American wardrobe."
I've had one particular conversation over and over again with other children of immigrants: When you don't fit in because of skin color, accented English, and/or a poor command of local customs, clothing matters. Fake it till you make it; dress for the job you wish you had; maybe if you look like the well-heeled women in your Vogue magazines, you won't be made to feel less-than by those who believe themselves to more obviously belong. My mother dressed me like a tiny, frilly doll when I started kindergarten, and she modeled herself after big-shouldered, big-haired fashionistas. Although we clearly stood out in my almost all-white hometown, our sense of style was meant to be on point.
My mother didn't tell me the following story until I was an adult. She'd brought my younger brother and me to a buffet restaurant — the kind of restaurant that my parents loved because it was always all-you-can-eat — and we were causing a ruckus. While she tried to calm us, an older white woman kept glaring in our unruly direction. Finally, the woman hissed at my mother to Go back to China and take her brats with her. Flustered and angry, my mother said nothing to the woman but kept trying to quiet us. I have no memory of this, even though I must have been at least four or five years old at the time. I expect that my mother behaved as though nothing were happening because she wouldn't want us to know that we, and in fact my entire family, were potential targets for racism.
Still, I can imagine it. My mother looks beautiful in her all-black outfit in a restaurant full of white Californians. She tries to corral her two children, who are also well-dressed and exotic, and who are exuberantly unaware of how different they look to outsiders. My mother in her monochromatic ensemble is like a shadow: but whether this shadow is a faint, mournful echo of her former self or armor for a new one, I cannot know.