Mom came home after a long day with four cold slices of pizza to feed the inept men she’d left at home like baby birds. Dad and I scrambled to the kitchen, dividing and heating our pieces on separate plates before joining her on the couch to start the latest season of “Dear White People”. Mom asked me a question in Chinese and I responded in English.
“Why don’t you answer her in her language, George?” Dad asked.
“Why don’t you learn Chinese?” I shot back defensively.
“I should, but I still don’t understand why you don’t…”
“I don’t want to entertain this conversation right now.” I replied.
Dad was genuinely curious and I felt bad for answering him sharply. There was too much to unpack in the few seconds between his question and pressing play on the remote, and I didn’t know where to start. What sounded like a simple question touched on my relationship with Mom, a shared language I could never fully grasp, and a sense of shame I’ve been working through for nearly five years. My relationship with Mandarin Chinese continues to be the most glaring hole in my relationship with the Chinese half of myself and an ongoing struggle to make peace with my mother and our past.
How am I supposed to tell him about the guilt I encounter when Mom asserts she’s going to speak nothing but Chinese to me, only to see her give up hours later when our stilted exchanges generate so much friction they make everyday errands impossible? How do I communicate how cringe-inducingly forced it always feels when she tries again every two months; a futile, last ditch effort to make up for all the hours she wasn’t around to teach me because she had to provide for our family? When is it appropriate to discuss how heartbroken and disconnected I feel knowing I’ll never comprehend how Mom thinks in her own language, always compromising as she expresses herself through functional, but fragmented, English. There’s no easy way to tell Dad that spending most of my childhood around him forced me to prioritize my relationship with him over her until I was old enough to recognize how little I knew the woman who birthed me.
I didn’t answer in Chinese because it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie. Unpacking all of this right before dinner, especially in front of Mom, was out of the question.
I was home on holiday from college five years ago when Mom quietly entered my room holding a photo album. She sat next to me and began sharing pictures and recounting stories from her past. I was sobbing within seconds. I knew so many of Dad’s stories by heart, yet I was completely unaware of everything Mom presented me despite having lived with her and the album she cradled in her arms my entire life. I was livid behind the tears. Furious at her for not showing me sooner and at Dad for filling my mind with euro-centric and patriarchal attitudes that allowed me to dismiss so much of Mom’s personhood without giving it a second thought. I was furious at myself most of all for accepting both dynamics for so long, like I had been on autopilot my entire life up until that point.
My newfound agency was painfully sobering as old memories came to the surface under new light. I remembered calling the Chinese language inefficient, making fun of Mom’s cultural rigidity, and detesting any social gathering that involved her friends. I wondered how many blows I had dealt my mother’s resilient soul over the years as I dragged her history through the mud, I was gutted by the cruelty I had inflicted on her growing up, imagining how it must feel to see your own flesh and blood disrespect you and not have the tools (in this case: an equal command of the English language) to fight back. I was ashamed at how carelessly I treated the life she left back in Taiwan to start a new one in the United States. A life that included raising me. I had been a fool.
I took to repairing my connection with Mom after winter break. Studying Mandarin Chinese for a year and immersing myself in eastern philosophy classes. I gained a newfound appreciation for everything I’d written off as a child, recognizing and working to eradicate an arrogance I’d embodied that can only be described as uniquely American. I’d come home stoned after drinking with friends during college breaks to find Mom painting in the kitchen or looking through old photos she took of a cat that used to hang out in the backyard. She’d hang out with me until my eyes grew heavy. We didn’t say much, but I finally began to understand who Mom was in those moments where we were both patient with each other. My heart broke with love.
Rebuilding my relationship with Mom while establishing new boundaries for myself as I progress through adulthood continues to be a tricky, but rewarding, balancing act. I may not know my mother tongue fluently, but I feel a different sense of cultural connection these days now that I’m living back home. What was once considered a western taboo has long been a Chinese norm, and I feel a deep gratitude being able to spend most days in the company of my Mom (just as she had with her mother in Taiwan) as she pursues her artistic career. I feel profoundly lucky that we get to spend time on this planet as adults together. I love getting to be her friend in addition to being her son.
When I was in first grade, Mom enrolled me in a Chinese Saturday-school that I loathed attending (since Digimon aired at the same time). We had to memorize and recite a poem as our final assignment that semester. Mine was “亲爱的妈妈”, which translates to “Dear Mother”, a sweet poem about a child’s love for their mother. Even as a six year old, being forced to learn someone else’s letter to their mom by heart felt inauthentic, even more so since my mom was the one helping me memorize it! I recited those words back to the class the following week, ignorant of any meaning, each sentence a string of sounds leaving my mouth. I wonder how Mom remembers that day, watching me laud her in a language I protested. I never forgot the feeling of being forced to lie. Not because I didn’t feel how the poem’s author felt towards their mom, but because it’s not how I would have said it.
So: 亲爱的妈妈, this is my letter to you. In the only language I know well enough to write it in. Happy Mother’s Day. I love you.