Mom knows (some of the) best

Since I have grown up around so many strong females in my family, I have always felt like I needed to take on that role as well, the role of a strong, independent, sacrificial woman. The men in my family have almost always been passive, quiet, meek, unable to express themselves clearly, the stereotypical passive Asian male. The women in my family have almost always been strong-willed, outspoken, somewhat aggressive, the stereotypical tiger mom. But it has taken me years to realize that I live in a different world, a different culture, and I may never be able to replicate the sacrifices that the women have made for their family members, and in the same way, I should never feel compelled to take on that stereotypical strong female role as well.

This winter break was the first time in a long time that I got to spend with my family, extended family included. This means I got to talk to my mom more, and because she loves to talk, she reminded me of old stories and shared new ones to me about our family. I’m reminded of the ways my mom continually puts family first; for example, after spending almost 22 years in the United States, she still sends cash back to her older relatives in China without fail before the new year, just to make sure they had some money to start the new year right. I got to see my aunt from my dad’s side, and my mom reminded me that she was the one who, for the sake of getting her siblings to America (my dad included), married an American citizen who was older than her own father; she was never able to have children, and now she lives alone. Because of this, my aunt always gets excited to see my brother, me, and all my other cousins; I can tell she treats us like her own children. I also got to talk to my eldest aunt, my dad’s eldest brother’s wife, whose son (my eldest cousin) has a family in Hong Kong, and she nearly cried talking about them because she’s been waiting for over ten years to get visas for them to finally come to America; she now lives alone with my uncle who had a colonic disease and can barely sit for more than three hours, which explains why they can never fly on a plane to visit their children.

These are some of the women I respect the most, but there are certain things about them that I would not want to carry with me into my prospective role as a mother sometime in the distant future. The ways in which they sacrifice for their families are so admirable, yet they all “suffer the consequences now,” if I may say that. They say they’re happy because the later generations are much better off than they were, but I can’t even begin to comprehend how they thought about the next generation’s needs before they even saw the next generation; while they were still young and capable, how did they even conceive the idea that going to America would pave the way for their future generations? Why did they put the responsibility upon themselves to make things better for people who didn’t even exist yet? I’m thankful to my parents and all my older relatives for the ways I’m able to live, grow, and thrive in America, but I can’t help but think about how guilty I feel for being part of the reason why they had to make such hefty sacrifices. I can’t help but feel incompetent, never being able make the same sacrifices they made for the sake of family. Will I be strong and determined enough to make those sacrifices for family if the opportunity ever comes up? If it becomes time for me to make sacrifices for them, will I be able to do the same?

I got to hang out with my mom a lot more this break: shopping, taking walks, making dinner, etc., and I’ve picked up on some of the things she’s said these last two weeks, some amusing and silly, while others more thought-provoking. Just to make things clear: my mom said all of this in Cantonese, so the direct translation to English might not do her words justice and might be confusing.

  • My mom said this after I noticed that there were way too many bananas at home: “There are two things in the world you can never have too much of. First, bananas. Dad will probably finish all 20 bananas in a week because he loves them so much, so they won’t go bad. Second, you can never say you don’t have enough money to spend. If you have very little money, you can spend it all, and if you have a lot of money, why, there’s more for you to spend! You can never have too much money to spend.”
  • We had just finished shopping downtown, and while waiting for the Muni, I complained that I was cold, and she said, “Stupid! Just put on one of the jackets we just bought. How ironic, you bought a jacket to keep yourself warm in the future, and now you’re cold and you can’t think to put on the jacket.” I laughed because she was right, but I still refused to put it on.
  • When I told her that my eldest aunt almost cried talking to me about her children / my eldest cousins: “That’s why whenever you come back from college, I always call all the relatives to eat out with us. They’re lonely, and their children may have families of their own and may be far away. It’s not just out of respect to see them when you’re home, but because they’re family, they care about you, and they want to see that you’re doing well. Even if they don’t say much to you when you do see them, seeing you is enough to make them smile, even if they only smile on the inside.”
  • She was telling me about this one time two weeks ago when she got mad at my brother: “I come home from work and guess what? The door was unlocked! I was so scared to even walk in the house because I wasn’t sure if someone might have snuck in. Then I remembered that my son, your brother, was the last person to leave the house that day, so he must’ve left it unlocked. So when he comes home, I ask him, ‘Did you forget to lock the door?’ and he yells at me, ‘I come home and the first thing you do is yell at me!’ and I explain to him, ‘No, I’m just asking if you forgot because the door was unlocked, and I was so scared.’ And you know what that boy said? He said, ‘It’s not my fault.’ And that’s stupid! How can he say it’s not his fault when he was the last person to leave the house? And I kept trying to explain my point, to remind him to check to see if the door is locked every time he leaves the house, and he just kept saying it’s not his fault, not his fault. And I’m so mad because I just wanted to tell him how to not do it next time, but he just kept yelling at me. All he had to say was, ‘Oh, I must’ve forgotten, I’ll check to lock the door next time.’ Then we could’ve avoided all of that. So I got so mad, I felt like my chest was going to burst from all that heat inside me from anger, so I told your dad, ‘Go teach your son!’ And you know how Dad never yells, so he was mad that I was mad, and he went to yell at your brother, and finally your brother stopped fighting back. Why couldn’t your brother just say, ‘Ok, sorry, I’ll try not to do it next time,’ why was saying that so hard for him? I don’t know.”

I think some of these little quips and remarks reflect the worldview and traditional morals of the older generation, which are things that I grew up with and a part of who I am. Even if I don’t agree with some of the things my mom says, I can’t lie and say that who she is hasn’t affected me at all, whether in a good or bad way. Her thoughts influenced my thoughts, and her words influenced my own words. As an adult now, I’m learning about myself and creating my own worldview, but that’s only after wrestling with the worldview that I’ve grown to know so well while being around my mom and all these strong women. I’m a link in the family chain, but I don’t want to feel tied down by their expectations for me. At the same time, I would feel selfish for not being able to sacrifice for them in the ways that they have already sacrificed for me. I’m jealous of my friends who don’t have such great expectations to live up to, but at the same time, I’m blessed to grow up around women who don’t take crap from anyone and who are willing to do anything for the people who matter the most to them: family. At the crossroads of two cultures, Chinese and American, I have a foot in each of the two tracks, yet I’m hoping to make my own path; how can I do it without splitting my pants? How can I come to terms with the fact that I am a bit of both cultures, learning from both and retaining parts of both?

Like the musical number “For Good” from the musical Wicked:

So much of me is made of what I learned from you…
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you,
I have been changed for good.

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