Monday, January 31st, 2011
Stupider Than a Potato: Life With My Chinese Mother
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I spent Christmas in Hong Kong with my brother and my parents. It was the first family holiday (minus my two sisters) we had in a very long time. We were walking around in Mong Kok the day after Boxing Day, strolling down the narrow path flanked on either side by busy stalls selling handbags, t-shirts, knick knacks and souvenirs on Ladies Street. The sky was clear and the sun was in our faces. It was nice, just walking and laughing with my family. I remember thinking, I should spend more time with my family, why haven’t I in all these years?
By early afternoon, we decided to find a place to rest, and landed our feet in Hui Lau Shan, a dessert house on Argyle St. My parents ordered something to share and my brother and I ordered our own desserts. After the waitress set down our order, my mom reached over to the plastic box with the cutlery and fished out three spoons; one she gave to my dad, one to my brother and one for herself. They started eating as they continued to talk, and I felt my heart sink as I watched them digging into their dessert, barely noticing my presence. Quietly, and without a fuss, I reached over to the plastic box and took out a spoon for myself. In that moment, I remembered why I left home and moved thousands of miles away from my family. I remembered all the emotions and the memories of my childhood spent growing up in our house in the little country town north of peninsula Malaysia. And I remembered why I don’t spend more time with my family; it’s because it’s not important to them. I barely said more than ten words after that for the rest of the day.
That night, as I lay in bed in my hotel room, reflecting on the day and the emotions that surfaced when we were at the dessert house, I didn’t know what to feel. I had thought that after leaving home, and since growing into an adult, my parents no longer had an effect on me, that I was a much bigger person, a more mature person, than I used to be when I was still under their roof.
Maybe I was wrong.
When I was born, my parents sent me away to be cared for by my grandmother and my aunt, who lived in the countryside about 40 minutes drive from our house. At the time, they already had two children, my older sister and my brother, both of whom lived with them and were looked after with the help of a maid. My parents visited on the weekends and when I was a little bit bigger, they took me home. When my younger sister was born, a little less than two years after me, she was bestowed the same fate. But this time, she stayed much longer, and returned only when it was time for her to go to school. At the time, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know it wasn’t the custom for parents to send their children away when they were born until I was older and was able to make sense of the world.
My grandparents are Chinese. Both my grandfathers had their own story of how they left China in search of a better life. One boarded a ship, the other stole away on a junk. But when they came to former Malaya, they brought all of China with them—its beliefs, conventions and traditions. I don’t know how my parents were raised when they were growing up. All I know is how they raised me.
My parents are products of the Chinese school system where corporal punishment was the acceptable form of discipline. And that was how it was in our household; we were very Asian and very conventional in more ways than one. My brother—the only son—was always the apple of my parents’ eyes, doted on more than us sisters in the traditional Chinese convention. My older sister was the exception because she was the first child. Both my brother and older sister had privileges that the rest of us never had: birthday parties, toys, presents, and being spared a lashing or two from the rod. I was unfortunate enough to come in third place, the prize being a lot of house chores, frequent hitting and being made to feel that I wasn’t a valued member of the family. That was how it was when we were growing up and I hated every minute of it. When I lay in bed at night, I often thought of running away from home. I never did because I knew it wouldn’t matter to anyone that I left.
Most of what I remember of my childhood consists of the image of my mother standing over me with a rattan cane in her hand, her eyebrows bunched together and her lips in a tight line. There was a lot of yelling, a lot of “Why are you so stupid?”, and a lot of hitting. Even the teachers knew not to ask what I had done wrong when I showed up in school the next day, limping, with swollen purple gashes on my calves. This went on until I had learned my lesson to not cry when I was hit no matter how painful it was, to stand very still and quiet when I was yelled at, and to do as I was told even if I didn’t agree. All through those years, I accepted that that was how it was—that children would be punished unless they were obedient and perfect. And I wasn’t perfect, so the best that I could do to stay out of trouble was to keep to myself as much as possible.
My mother used to yell at my younger sister when she came home with a 98% on her mathematics exam. She yelled at her for not getting the 2% to make it a perfect 100%. She used to call me names, yelled at me because I was stupid—even stupider than a potato, brainless as it is. She used to wail about how much harder her life became after I was born. And she cursed God and wondered what she had done in her past life to deserve a child like me. I often thought, in those moments, that I hadn’t asked to be born; if I had known that my being would cause her so much suffering, I would have chosen not to exist. She constantly compared me to my brother, to my older sister, to my cousin, to anyone she could think of, and criticized me about my flaws—my stupidity, laziness and slowness, Even though her criticism pushed me to study harder and be better, I always felt that in her eyes, I was never good enough. And no matter what I did, she would never love me as much as she loved my brother and my older sister.
When I was 15 years old, I became depressed. I was trapped in a depression closet and suffered for 12 long years, feeling that I was never good enough and that my life was insignificant. I left home the first chance I had when I was 17, moved overseas when I was 19, and never turned back. I made sure that I had a barrier of a few thousand miles separating me from my family because I was tired of listening to my mother criticize and compare me to other people—about how much weight I had to lose to be as skinny as my cousin, how much I should be making to be as successful as the other kids in my class, who didn’t do all that well academically, etc. I was tired of having to answer questions about why I’m not making more money, why I wasn’t promoted and why I don’t have a boyfriend because the answers inevitably would lead to because I’m not good enough.
While the Asian way of parenting may work for many Asians, it didn’t work for me. Even though I eventually excelled at school and did really well in extracurricular activities, there was a gaping hole in my life. I felt that no one understood me and no one appreciated me for who I was and what my true gifts and talents were. I was a lone ranger, an anti-social who preferred to spend time in my own company than in others, and through experience, I learned that I didn’t have a strong bond with anyone, not my family and definitely not my schoolmates. It wasn’t until after I left home and started to meet people who shared similar values that I began to feel that maybe I wasn’t a misfit after all. It took many years for me to reach the point of realization that my parents no longer had power over me, that they are not always right, and my life was mine to live in any way I wanted. I realized that the power of choice was in my hands, and that even though in life, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. So, I made a choice. I chose to exit the vicious circle of not-being-good-enough and end the suffering that I had been drowning in for way too long.
In my path of self-discovery, I learned that nothing has meaning except the meaning I give it. I know my parents did the best that they could with whatever they had, and I know that how they see and treat me will never change. The onus is on me to create meaning that empowers rather than disempowers me. I accepted that this was the life that I have to live, and realized that all the experiences I have had, both good and bad, growing up in my household was what led me to become who I am today.
Kahlil Gibran, in his book The Prophet, wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” My hope for myself is that when it’s my turn to be a parent, I will remember this, and instead of preparing the path for my children, I will prepare them for their path, knowing that every child needs to be raised in a way that supports him or her.
As for the dessert spoon that I never got from my mother, well, I guess she still thinks that boys will be boys. No matter how old they are, they still need their women to look after them.
© 2011 – 2013, Chiao Kee Lim. All rights reserved.
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