In the Blog
Mummy Dearest: Post-Mother’s Day Edition
My mom taught me to be docile, small and quiet; to never talk back, draw attention to myself, or breathe too loudly. Yet I recall her face dropping as she listened to the same dreadful evaluation at each year’s parent-teacher interview: “Your daughter needs to speak up more in class.”
You see, my mom always wanted a boy, but she tried her best to raise me as a Good Asian Girl that some Good Asian Guy would want to marry. (Note: “Good” is used interchangeably with “housewife material” in the former, and with “wealthy” in the latter and yes, it’s incredibly heteronormative). Growing up, I was told that a girl should never aim too high or dream too big – that having ambition was unattractive, having a career was intimidating, and making more money than your male counterpart would guarantee your future as an “old maid.”
And yet few things disappointed her more than seeing a poor “S” participation grade that stained an otherwise decent-ish report card. The grading legend says “S” stands for satisfactory – not “Excellent,” “Good,” or “Fucking embarrassing” – but to my mom, it stood for “Sucks ass anyways.” To a young child, there are few things in life more disappointing than seeing your mother disappointed.
My mom was full of many contradictions. In turn, most of her teachings were, too. You were never really sure which side she was on. She took “devil’s advocate” to a new level.
She would tell you to never starve your body, since “being healthy is more important than being skinny.” As you finish picking the crumbs off your ‘stache, she would warn you to watch your weight – “men don’t like thick girls.”
She would tell you to marry a man, but discourage you from dating. She would discourage you from dating, but thinks arranged marriages are too traditional. But somehow you still have to get married. So maybe dating is sometimes okay. Depends when you ask her.
I always imagined her favourite TV show would be a mixture of 40 year-old virgin and 19 Kids and Counting – the “mix” being a 40 year-old virgin with 19 kids. After all, she would also like you to have biological children, but not to copulate.
On the flip side, she also says your life would be much better off without the burden of spawn – who needs them, anyways? Your biological clock is ticking.
Yet somewhere among all the contradictions, I understood where she was coming from.
My mom was a first generation immigrant from Vietnam – a full-fledged adult with an existing set of life-shaping experiences. . For many families moving to a new country, the struggle between assimilation and resistance is a common narrative. My father opted for the latter – to him, resistance represented order and certainty in an uncertain place. Even as our circumstances changed – and the circumstances “back home” changed – my parents were stuck in their memories of what “home” represented. And in many ways, our home became the stage for nostalgic re-enactment; and us, actors that were assigned roles we couldn’t – and didn’t want to – play.
Like most relatively low-income immigrant families, traditional gender roles were a luxury we couldn’t afford. My mother was a breadwinner, and because she picked up on English faster, she also began to have more leverage outside of the home. The more she defied conventional gender norms, the more ambiguous – and troubling – her identity became. At that point, it had become much more than just my mother negotiating what it meant to be a “woman” – it had opened the doors for me to believe I could do the same.
When my mother arrived in Canada, she had a dream of getting an education and finding a good job. She hadn’t planned to get married or have children, but hearing your elders say “you better get married before you’re too old” and “you better have children before you’re too old” can do a pretty effective job of putting doubt into your mind. While I can’t say that my mom doesn’t use the same scare tactics on me from time to time, there was one message that was always constant and unwavering – she wanted me to have the life that she didn’t. To her, the best way to do that was to empower me through education.
As a child, I was ceaselessly encouraged to do well in school and find my career path, so that I could live without the financial and emotional hardships that she faced. Perhaps the most important part was that she believed that a girl should aim to be, and could be, more than just an “S.”; that seeing and treating your child as an individual, and not a gendered body, brings us one step closer to attaining equity. My mother didn’t hesitate to go into more debt to buy things that many kids felt entitled to – a computer, laptop or internet – just to give me equal footing. “You can repay me when you’ve made it,” she would pat my shoulder and say. What she really gave me was the ability to choose my own path in life.
And that is a debt that I could never repay.