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  • Lijing Cobb

Fire and water

9 years ago today, in the wee hours of that wintry morning, I waddled out of the bathroom and felt a puddle of water dropping from inside of my body onto the floor right beneath me. Bemused, since my first child resisted induction for a day and a half before she finally gave up the fight, I realized that this second child was too impatient to wait another 12 days to meet everyone in the world, and he had broken my water.


After I woke up my sleeping husband and assured him that we could not wait, as he would have liked, till the morning to go to the hospital, we got ourselves ready and left to welcome this new person into our family. By 9:37am, he was in my arms. My son. I could not believe it.

I caught the departing train of China’s One Child policy, and became the second and last daughter of my parents. The story was that when my older sister was born to her then 20 (my mom) and 24 (my dad) year old parents, she had taken so much time, love, and attention of my mom away from my dad, that my dad was beside himself with jealousy. He never forgave my sister for coming into the world, and set forth to make her life miserable in every way he could.

My mom had two abortions after that, both boys. My dad regretted that tremendously. When my mom was pregnant with me, my father reluctantly agreed to have the child because before long, every woman in China who had a child already was going to be forced to be sterilized. I was their last shot at having a son.

I, sadly, came into the world in the body of a girl, with a flaming birthmark on my forehead, which my mom insisted was in the shape of a dragon, the Chinese zodiac sign for the year I was born in. I was lucky to be alive, my mom said, and my father really wanted a boy instead of me. Ah, I was second rate. A boy was a treasure. A girl? Lucky to be alive. Everybody in China, every expecting family with the sword of the One Child policy hanging over the only umbilical cord they would ever cut, wanted a boy. Girls were thrown out, left in the gutters to die. Girls were hidden, erased from existence so that a son could be born to carry on the name of the family. Why was I so unlucky? What’s so special about boys? Was that why my father could do whatever he wanted, while all my mother could do was to suffer in silence?

Despite the fact that I was a girl, my mom loved reminiscing in vivid details some memories in the early days when I was born:


“I was resting on the bed with you in my arms, and when I looked out I could see a huge snake coiled on the eaves just right outside of our room, looking at you. It stayed for a long time, just looking at you. I’ve never seen a snake as big as that one. Day after day it came back to stare. We were frightened!”


Was the snake thinking, yummy snack? But my mom insisted that it was the dragon god visiting its offspring and making sure that I was well taken care of. “You are a dragon! Look at your birthmark! It used to get so red and real looking when you got angry and cried!”


I’m a fire dragon. I was visited by the dragon god when I first arrived. And I should have been a boy. My dragon shaped birthmark had faded and disappeared in my teenage years when I girlhood could no longer to mistaken, much to the chagrin of my mother.


I didn’t see a giant snake when my son was born. He was born a water dragon. When I held him in my arms he had no fancy birthmark on any part of his body, and my low back hurt like crazy. But I still marveled at his arrival. I couldn’t believe that I had given birth to a boy. My right to existence had finally been validated. My father would have been proud.

My mom tried to spoil my son. My only sister, who only has one daughter, yelled at me every time she saw me not giving special treatment to my boy. The more they wanted me to worship my boy, the harder I became towards my son. A boy is no different from a girl, I told myself. He deserved all the punishments for his conduct because he couldn’t be as good as my daughter, I said to myself often. I refused to understand him.


As the years went by, my boy and I grew further and further apart.


One day I realized that he no longer paid any attention to what I said to him on a normal decibel level. If he did anything wrong and stood for trial, he stole furtive glances at my husband even when I was the only accuser. There was no respect left in his young heart for a mother who kept pushing him away in favor of her daughters. It was an open secret that I wished I only had daughters. He could do no right in my eyes, so he had stopped trying.


It’s as if I had a vendetta against my son from the day he was born. If his existence would have pleased my father, when neither my sister’s, my mom’s, or mine could please him; if I, had I been born a boy, would have made all the difference in the world in how we lived under the same roof where the dragon god visited for a few mornings and my father got drunk and shouted at us for 2 decades; if the boy could be all kinds of bad and get away with it, and the girl could be all kinds of good and not make it—then I wanted nothing to do with the boy. I looked at my boy with coldness in my eyes and heart for years. I was in charge. I showed my father that a girl could be mean to an innocent boy too and get away with it.


Except I didn’t get away with it. The last thing I wanted to be was becoming a carbon copy of who I despised.

Last night, on the eve of his 9th birthday, my son and I had a talk. I’d never had a birthday eve talk with him before. In the journey of his young life my boy has had to travel on his own for a while without me, and I am now attempting to catch up with him.


“If you could press a button and select a feeling you want to fall asleep to every night, what would it be? Happy, sad, anxious, mad…” I started.


“Happy!” Before I could finish, the reply came.


“Ok. So you want to be happy. What would you do to feel happy at the end of the day?”


“I would be nice to people, help them, eat healthy, stay active, do good things and make good choices.”


“That sounds great. Now imagine that you could play Minecraft (my son’s addiction) all day and eat whatever you want. At the end of the day, would you feel happy?”


“No mom! I can’t play all day even if I wanted to. My head would start hurting and I would feel miserable. I’d feel crappy!” His voice had a hint of whining, but with a lot of resignation instead of agitation.

“See, your body is so smart. It tells you that playing video games all day is no good. It tells you that you need to move, eat well, and get away from the screen to feel good.”

“Yes, I know.” A silence followed. I knew he was thinking.


“You see,” I started again when I thought he was ready to hear more, “every day, every hour, every minute, it happens to us only once. And we have lots of choices. We can use the same hour to play video games, read, play with friends, write, eat good food, eat crappy food, help people, hurt people. We make the choice of how we want to spend the hour. Throughout the day we keep making these choices, and then at the end of the day we feel happy, sad, anxious, mad, all because of the choices we make during the day. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, it makes perfect sense. If I want to feel good, I have to make good choices. If I make bad choices, I end up feeling crappy too.” These days my precious boy listens better and better now that I am actually taking the time to communicate with him.

“You are so right.” I gave him a tight squeeze, and then gave him an invitation. “Can we both think about this often when we make our choices? You and I both want to be good, do good things, and be happy, right?”

“Ok, mommy.” His voice was sleepy.


“Sweet dreams, baby.” I gave him a kiss and in an instant, he was asleep.


My boy is not my father, and I am not to my son who my father was to me. My son chooses the happy button, and he and I can choose to be good together. Every time I choose to be mean to my boy because of a gender he did not choose to end up in, I commit my father’s crime again in the name of rectifying it.


I see now, my precious boy. Happy indeed was the day you were born into my world, to teach me that you ARE different, you ARE you own person, and you deserve respect and love even when you make “wrong” choices. They say that fire and water cannot coexist together: water puts out fire and fire dries up water. I think that your water can cool my fire when it’s raging out of control, and my fire can warm you back up when ice threatens to take over. It’s all a matter of choice, how we use our elements in the right way, FOR each other.


Let’s make good choices together every day, shall we? Happy birthday, from a mother to her son.


My boy and I vow to love each other the right way.

On the day he was born, with so many possibilities.


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