I watched my mom welcome a hug from my brother’s six-year-old son, William. It was a step forward seeing more affection in my family as a result of the grandchildren but I longed for the same affection from my parents. I never saw my parents kiss. I rarely heard “I love you” or “I’m proud of you” or any statement that might expand my ego. I don’t remember hugs or kisses when we were younger but I grew not to expect it, perhaps because it was not part of the equation of love in our household.
The absence of physical affection was not for lack of love though. “Have you eaten yet?” was practically an “I love you,” showing care and concern. I felt love in the ways my parents took care of us: food on the table, clothes on our backs, a roof over our heads. We received gifts for Christmas, sometimes in the form of lai see, red envelopes filled with crisp green bills tucked into a Christmas card. We traveled. We laughed. What more should we have asked for?
The family unit was of utmost importance. Outwardly, though, it appeared that proper etiquette and respect for elders was enforced to maintain hierarchy. My parents were still feeding us, years after we moved out, even though they were retired and helping take care of the grandchildren since my brother and his wife both worked full-time jobs.
This week, family dinner night was moved to Friday night instead of Saturday. My parents and I were flying up to the bay area for a wedding Memorial Day weekend. We congregated at my parents’ house to commune over a home-cooked meal that they prepared. The steaming dishes circled the Lazy Susan: pear soup with sweet dates, beancurd and shrimp hotpot with kale from Mom’s garden, Dad’s slow-cooked char sui sprinkled with candied julienne carrots, a plateful of Chinese broccoli drizzled with oyster sauce and sesame oil.
As William lagged on his meal my brother said, “Hurry up and clean your bowl or else your wife will be ugly.” It seemed a harmless tactic to entice his son to finish a meal, to not waste food. William looked like he didn’t know what a wife was and why he should care about one. Mom used to say something similar to me, “You want a handsome husband? Finish your rice.” The superstition purported that the cleanliness of your bowl represented your future spouses facial complexion. It sounded impossible that cleaning my bowl would reward me with a handsome man but I wasn’t taking chances. I picked off every grain for fear my husband would have a bumpy or pockmarked face resembling leftover rice stuck to the side of a bowl.
“If you’re full, don’t force yourself,” Mom intervened, stroking William’s hair. She showed a much softer side toward the grandchildren than what I remember of her while I was growing up.
For example, I could not seem to escape her wrath when it came to chores. “Why do I have to keep asking you, you supposed to clean the bathroom,” she said. “You want a husband? You need to learn these things. That’s your job! Nobody want a slob.” If I forgot to do my chores or did them haphazardly, Mom would insidiously call me a lan gwuy, a lazy bum. Doing my chores without complaint was a way of honoring my parents, showing them respect by doing them. Sometimes I genuinely forgot to do them, other times after being called “lazy” or “no good,” I was not feeling enough love to do them. How could I do chores when all it earned me was name-calling? Eventually my list of chores seemed like a stack compared to my brother’s.
I was tasked with cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming, and helping Mom with meal prep, in addition, feeding the cats and setting the table. My brother mowed the lawn—which I eventually took over when he moved away—and switched off with Dad every other week it seemed. My brother and I took turns preparing lunch for school or taking out the trash. My parents and I did the dishes, rotating every few days. Mom always did the laundry. Dad cooked. It was supposed to be fair but it didn’t feel fair.
And I kept thinking I’m a lazy bum, I’m a lazy bum, I’m a lazy bum. Why bother prove that I wasn’t? It took me longer and longer for me to get around to doing my chores. I watched hours of television or daydreamed about Fox Mulder of The X-files instead.
Once in awhile, my brother would jump in and do the dishes. Mom’s face would light up. “You see, I don’t have to ask him to do chores. You so lazy.” It was harder to feel loved when Mom would be bearing down on me like this, trying to knock me into obedience.
He would shoot a look that read, “There she goes again,” but never said anything in my defense. Instead, he cracked jokes to diffuse the tension.
“That carrot looked like dis,” he said, crossing his eyes, exaggerating his overbite, and spreading his fingers in all directions close to his chin to resemble the multi-pronged carrot Mom pulled from her garden. She would laugh uncontrollably until her cheeks turned pink. He was a pro at making her laugh like that.
I felt his big brotherliness over the years when he bought me state-of-the-art electronic gifts: a Palm Pilot, a Nokia cell phone, a Nikon SLR camera, an Apple G4. It almost felt like compensation. I wasn’t mad at my brother even if Mom favored him. But all I could focus on was whether or not my brother and I were fairly treated. In my eyes, Mom was constantly failing her words.
Dad called their parenting “the freedom method,” an homage to America, the land of the free, the land of opportunity. Dad wanted to give us the freedom of choice, which is probably why my parents never forced me to play piano, never forced us to go to church, never forced me to learn Chinese.
My mom was behind the method in her own way. “Grandma always favor the boys. She give all the money to the boys and leave nothing for the girls. That’s why we treat you two the same,” Mom said. I think she meant our allowances and chores. In the back of my mind though, I felt she wasn’t treating my brother and me the same emotionally. My brother won her favor in so many ways it sickened me whenever she pulled out the “We treat you the same” line.
The last time I saw Grandma was in a casket. My family and I spent Thanksgiving Day 1994 on the road to Oakland because she—popo we called her—had passed away from complications from diabetes. When my mom got the call, the news passed over without jilting her. She didn’t cry but stood rather expressionless by the phone when she hung it up. We all knew Grandma’s death could be imminent but my mom’s lack of emotion was something else.
Mom pounded around upstairs in her usual manner, heels first, while packing for the unexpected trip issuing some inaudible mutterings. Her footwork was so loud I could hear it from downstairs along with the sliding and slamming of dresser drawers. I could only imagine what she was saying to herself as I recalled what she would say to me. “Grandma only care about the boys.”
What she said represented a tragic injustice for girls in China resulting in treatment as if they were a burden. Males worked to support a household, and carried the family name on, whereas females would be married off into her husband’s family—another mouth to feed in the meantime. It was especially hard for a peasant farmer. Of course, they preferred a boy.
In China, it was common for at least three generations to live together under one roof. Grandparents would look after the grandchildren. Children would look after their aging parents. Mom was the youngest girl out of eight siblings and despite the obvious bias my grandma subscribed to my mom took care of Grandma in her ailing years. When her familial duties were over, Mom was relieved, but angry more than anything.
“Dad and I take care of our funeral arrangements so you don’t have to worry. I don’t want to burden you,” Mom said. When we arrived at Grandma’s apartment, a stony old building in Oakland with a view of a clock tower, Mom and her brother got to work dividing up her possessions. Grandma’s fortune—from the sale of property in Hong Kong—went to all her sons, enough for each son to buy a small home. What was left in her apartment was up for grabs. We drove home with one Sony television and one wooden TV stand on casters.
After the wedding, my cousin Ella wanted to take us to an ice cream parlor in Alameda. We sat down at a marble table with our scoops of Tucker’s Super Creamed Ice Cream. We talked about the wedding, how Ella and I shouldn’t miss the boat on getting married, but before long Ella was probing my mom for details about our family history. Ella loved ice cream but family dirt was vastly more delicious and she was skilled at teasing it out. It turned out Grandma, my mom’s mother, had sent her daughters to live in China with an uncle while keeping her sons with her in Hong Kong. Ella mined for more information as I dug a hole through my mint chocolate ice cream.
Grandma had quite a brood to take care of—five girls and three boys—especially after her husband died in his early forties leaving her to manage the herbal store he had established on Lock Heart Road, Hong Kong. When my mom came along, she too was sent to China to live with her grandmother. I knew these facts but what came next was new to me.
“My mom come to pick up my cousin, a boy, to bring back to help at the store,” mom said. “I love my grandma. But there was no food. I was always hungry. Starving. So when my mom was leaving I chase after them. I knew if I don’t leave now, I would be left behind. My mom tried to turn me away but I keep after them until they take me. I was three years old. Can you imagine? I remember those things. At three years old, I knew my mom abandon me,” Mom said.
“That’s why I have so much grit toward my own mom.” Mom dug into her faux leather purse and pulled out a packet of tissue to dab at her eyes, her permed hair looking flatter than ever. My heart seized. Growing up, Mom talked bitterly of Grandma but not like this, never this story.
Mom told us that when Grandma asked #2 Aunt—who had married and moved to the United States—to apply for visas only for her sons, #2 Aunt refused saying, “If I don’t apply all of you, nobody comes.” If #2 Aunt hadn’t fought back, Grandma would have once again abandoned her daughters. It was staggering how our ancestor’s culture played such a part in influencing our beliefs, behavior, and ultimately our lives generations later.
It made me wonder what cycles of tradition have we held onto that we should give up. My mom was trying to break the chain of injustice every time she repeated “We treat you the same.” It was her way of saying she wasn’t going to be like her mom. She was bucking that belief system. However, by calling attention to Grandma’s injustice toward her, I kept feeling she had committed injustices against me regardless.
I wished I knew what my mom went through sooner.
I wished she had been able to express that story instead of telling me over and over that Grandma treated them unfairly and that’s why she “treated us the same.” Her pain translated into being hard and defensive. She wasn’t soft when I needed her to be. I was provided for, that was the evidence of love, but I needed so much more. Now I knew, she hadn’t been provided for when she needed it most. She hadn’t been loved properly. How was she supposed to know love was more than what her own mother showed her? There was no comparison to the unfairness she experienced and yet I felt my feelings still mattered too.
We didn’t talk enough to each other to dispel hard feelings when they arose. We didn’t communicate our pain. We expressed our hurt in awful ways instead, as if everyone deserved to feel it too, as if we weren’t responsible for our own feelings.
I wasn’t any closer to communicating the way I wanted to but I knew that whenever I was honest and kind in expressing pain, others listened and responded. I decided to give up feeling that Mom was treating me unfairly. She deserved my love. As we left the parlor, I reached my arm around Mom’s shoulders and pull her into my body, a sideways hug.