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Stupid Tits and Other Cruel Childhood Memories

Here is another pain in the ass assignment I had to write for my intercultural communications class.  I’m not sure I count this as writing, because after panicking about doing this last-minute, I decided to follow my son’s sage advice, “Relax Mama, don’t stress.  You don’t have to work so hard on it like usual.  It’s ok to do some half-assed work once in a while.”  I don’t know what dark place this memory barf came from, but it turns out I was a giant asshole when I was a kid…

English was my first language.  I grew up surrounded by many foreign languages, however, listening to my Chinese mother exclaim, “PAH-suh-woah!” when I would jump out and surprise her.  Literally, it means “scare-death-me.” The equivalent of “You scared me to death.” Or she would rub her tummy before a meal, roll her eyes and say, “Woah UH suh la!”  Again, the words literally meaning, “I hungry died.” The equivalent of “I’m starving to death.”  Because I was raised hearing the language formed in that way, I didn’t find it confusing. I just had to dial back my thinking to very simplified word combinations. The thing you say when you see a person after a long period of time – “Long time no see!”  That is a literal Chinese translation, “How jo bu-jen!”  We regularly spoke a hybridized version of English and Chinese in our home.  In Chinese, the Chinese language is called, “Jung-wen.”  We called our special language “Jung-glish.”    When I began to learn Chinese formally in school (unfortunately with my own mother as the teacher), I rebelled in teenage fashion and used my English to twist the Chinese.  Many Chinese words are homonyms; they are pronounced identically, but with a different tone to indicate the different meaning.  The casual word for Father (the equivalent of “Dad” in English) is “Baba”; with the emphasis on the first syllable. And the word for the way children say “poop” is also “baba” but the tone drops down and up on the first syllable and then the emphasis is on the last syllable.  Speaking Chinese is like singing a language. Unfortunately, meanings can be easily changed with different tones, and the “Ma” for mother can turn into “Ma” for horse or “Ma” to mean scolding. So as a teenager with an American attitude, being forced to suddenly transform into a proper Chinese daughter, complete with filial piety, I made horrible jokes like, “Dad was in a race and he stepped in dog poo as we are cheering him on. ‘Go Baba Go!  OH NO, Go-baba!  Go-baba!’” My parents were not amused. When we were young, we were cruel. My mother would lose her temper and start yelling at my sisters and me; and while she spoke fluent English, she never could say one word properly.  She never could say “stupid.”  It was always “stupid-tit.”  She would yell that we were acting “stupid-tit!” and my sisters and I would drolly reply, “Mom. We aren’t tits.”  I kick myself every time I remember those times.  Her accent (pg. 273) was strong in my early childhood, and we looked down on it, thinking the reason must have been because she didn’t learn her English well enough.  Later on, she would look me straight in the eye and say, “Considering I was born Chinese, I would say my English is pretty damn good. English is actually the most difficult language to learn in the world.  And it’s not just the words – sometimes I just don’t get you Americans. Be careful before you judge.”

 

Now the tables have been turned.  It is 40 years later, my mother is no longer living, and I am married to German man who spoke no English when we first met. He and our oldest daughter actually learned their English together when she first started speaking.  He is fluent now, and my German has not progressed past the level I learned in boarding school 35 years ago.  When I write letters to my mother-in-law, I pass them to my husband to proofread, and I always see in the corner of my eye, his shoulders begin shaking as he tries to suppress his laughter.  “WHAT!” I huff. He wipes tears from his eyes and giggles, “Honey, your letter is so cute…like it was written by a kindergartener!”  I felt just like my mom must have felt.  German has words like “Wintersturmwonnemondwende”.  It means “Delight at the changing of the seasons.”  They crammed all the individual words together; it literally means, “Winter-Storm-Bliss-Moon-Turning.”  Languages are complicated!  And as the NPR broadcast Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong pointed out; when learning a language, we are not just learning the words, we are “learning whole cultural systems.” My stupid teenage antics were perfect examples of what not to do with my newly learned Chinese language; as I matured, I learned to be more mindful (pg. 289).  I learned to treat the language with the dignity that the Chinese people have for thousands of years.  I grew to appreciate the synergism between Chinese and the culture that my mother was attempting to share with me. I was the younger generation that was disappearing into the American culture, and she wanted to use her native language to pass down her culture to my generation (pg. 266) before we lost our ties with our heritage. The information learned in this chapter, teaching us about mindfulness (pg. 293) with learning new languages, explaining how words can be misinterpreted for many reasons, and how to be aware of conversation taboos (pg. 293) would have been quite useful in teaching the teenage version of me how to use my second language competently in an intercultural context (pg. 293)

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Today is Just a Day

Mothers’ Day has always been a day of conflict for me. When I was a little girl, and my elementary school teachers would help us make cards and gifts to bring home for that special day, I always presented them to my mother, heart bursting with pride, hoping she would see how much I loved her by how much glitter I glued on the construction paper. Of course, my mother was an artist, a world-renowned artist. “Thank you, that’s nice” was the best I could hope for, and one raised eyebrow at my stick-figure drawings told me my artwork was not so nice. I recall most of my time with my parents filled with my yearning for a mom and dad like my friends’ moms and dads; parents who enjoyed their children and who wanted to be parents. My parents always reminded us that #1 all three of us girls were meant to be boys to carry on the family name, and #2 my mother was especially careful to let us know that she never wanted children (we interfered with her blossoming art career) but she did it to make our dad happy. My childhood heartbreak gradually hardened in my teenage years, into a resolve to find or make a family that would love me as much as I loved them. I stopped paying attention to Mothers’ Days because the only mothers I ever met who I wanted to thank, already belonged to other people like my friends. Oh, how I coveted their moms. My best friend Kirsten’s mom even let me call her Mom while we lived in Shanghai. For years, that gave me the greatest comfort.

Finally, I grew up and had the baby I always dreamed of loving. The moment our eyes made contact, I felt hit with a bolt of lightning; THIS was what I was meant to do, to be the most loving mother to this baby girl. Every single bad memory of my family took a back seat to my new priority. As a first time mother, I had very little to help guide me. Not only were my parents completely disinterested in being grandparents, I was quite certain any grandmotherly advice was useless, coming from a woman who never wanted her own children. As my baby grew into toddlerhood and her independence grew, little conflicts arose. Tempted to lose my temper in the face of tantrums or naughty behaviour, I always stopped myself with one thought, “What would my parents do?” A very twisted version of What Would Jesus Do…whatever the answer, I made a deliberate choice to do the OPPOSITE. My parents would have spanked a toddler who drew on the walls, spanked a child who wanted to wear her underwear on the outside of her pants, spanked a child who talked back. My father always told us that children were cabbages until they were old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation. I chose to learn about the concept of Time Out, let my child choose her own clothing, and learned how to use my words. I am sure it was much more frustrating and time-consuming to do it the long way, versus the shortcut of beating. But I have very clear memories of the leather belt with moons and stars cut into it, that would beat my bare legs and bottom until those moons and stars were imprinted on my flesh. I will never forget the fear and dread when my father would tell me exactly how many smacks with the belt I would get; most of the time in the double digits. I would know it was coming because if I talked back or lied or did anything wrong in my mother’s eyes, she would screw her face up in rage, point her finger at me, and scream, “Just WAIT until your father gets home!” And when I was a teenager, and the only thing I did was roll my eyeballs, as teenagers do, she didn’t even wait for my father. Her teacup full of hot green tea would come flying at my head. Maybe that’s why I became a goalie in soccer in high school; I learned to not flinch in the face of flying objects, to take the impact on my body, and to keep going.

As the years passed, the negative connotations I associated with Mothers’ Day slowly faded. Gradually, Mothers’ Day ceased being about my mother, a reluctant mother. I started to see that it was a day about any human being, man or woman, who CHOSE to care for another. My own children brought me homemade cards of construction paper, glue, and glitter, on the breakfast tray in bed. I have saved every one of them. My oldest, Emily, ever since she could write, has written silly poems and hilarious rap songs. I cherish every one of them. Even when I went into labor with my youngest, Simon, little Emily made colourful little posters to tape on the hospital room wall to cheer me on, “Laber is Fun!” I still have that little poster, misspelling and all. “Laber” isn’t all that fun, after all, but this family sure is. Last year, my husband cared for me and the children while I battled breast cancer; he became the best example of a mother I have ever known. I look around my life, and there is no more room for bad feelings on Mothers’ Day.

This morning, for the first time, I woke without my husband and my oldest child on Mothers’ Day. Markus is out in Seattle, working hard to make a new home for our family to move to next month. Emily is in Phoenix with her best friend to celebrate her graduation from university. Feeling slightly sorry for myself, I opened my eyes to find my two younger children, Hanna and Simon, holding a tray of breakfast and a coffee in a Love Cup. “Happy Mothers’ Day, Mama, we love you!” A feast of eggs and kale and onions, and their happy faces beaming at me while I ohh’d and ahh’d. Simon told me, “My gift to you is that I am going to scoop poop in the yard and mow the lawn!” And they both promised to help me clean the house for company tonight. That’s a minor miracle right there. I opened my email, and there was a letter to me, from my Emily. Not her usual funny rap or poem, this is what she wrote:

“Hi Mama Bear!

This isn’t my usual rap, because I felt that I had a lot to say that wouldn’t be very easy to rhyme. It’s Mother’s Day! You’ve gone through three “labers,” none of which could have been all that fun. You’ve raised one semi-adult who has so far managed not to perish out in the real world, one sassy teenager who loves to shock us all with her rebellion and independence, but who will one day undoubtedly shock us with incredible success, and also one hilariously weird boy who has the exterior of a hardened thug, but who’s insides are filled with love and an amazing sense of kindness. On top of all of this, you work hard to maintain the most beautiful marriage that I have ever seen.

When I was first processing that you had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year, they were some of the scariest feelings I’ve ever felt. First off, what kind of universe did we live in if someone as caring, sweet, and undeserving as you could possibly be dealt an early entry into Heaven? I realized we had all taken you and everything you did for us for granted; something I still sometimes catch myself guilty of. You are the only constant I’ve had in my entire life and I’ve literally known you for forever. How am I supposed to ever be expected to navigate through this stupid world without you to call and complain to? Without you to cry and scream and vent to, without hearing your 100% honest advice on something as small as what to buy at the grocery store, all the way to making life-changing decisions that I’m too weak to deal with on my own? That’s why when you were diagnosed, I never really considered it an option that you could ever disappear from my world. Nothing was strong enough to take you away from me, because you are mine and I couldn’t let that happen.

This was a very idiotic and naive approach to your newly discovered cancer. Because I wiped away this possibility, I did not embrace the seriousness of your illness, nor how important it would be for me to move back home. Even when I finally did, I look back and see how little I contributed to the family, how much more I could have done to lessen the burden of your surgery and healing. I know I can’t make that time up to you, but I am sorry for being a noob.

I have so many amazing memories of times we have shared. Obviously we have had some really bad times, horrible screaming fights and sometimes deafening bouts of silence. You’ve said before that you have blocked out most of your negative memories from your childhood, because they were too painful to keep around. But I think that the reason I remember less of the bad and all of the good is not because the bad is so bad, but because the good is so great. You and Papa have given us such an amazing life, full of the most love and laughter out of family I could ever imagine. I love when we’re all out for dinner, and half the conversation is purely brought-up memories that make my mouth burst out with laughter, and my heart burst with all the love we all share.

You are the coolest, funniest, most welcoming and biggest hearted mom (and person) I have ever known or even heard about. Even without ever meeting you, my friends give you rave reviews. I’m so sorry it took me so long to realize that I chose the best possible person to not only raise me, but to be my very best friend. I love you the most and I hope you always know that.

Happy Mother’s day Mama!!

Love,
Emmy”

Mothers’ Day is not a happy day for many people. But I believe you do not have to settle for what Life dishes out to you. If you can survive to adulthood, you can make the changes you need to find happiness. Leave the bad behind, or if you choose to keep it in your heart, use it to make your life better. There are some shitty moms out there getting some pretty damn good love from children that deserve more. Stay strong, kiddos. There is love out there, and it doesn’t have to come from your bio mom. If you can’t find it, you make it yourself. The more love you make, the more love just bubbles up and overflows.

This is it. I am here. I made it. I am the mother I always wanted, with the children I always wanted, in the family I always wanted. Dreams do come true. Happy Mothers’ Day to those who can, and I wish a Future Happy Mothers’ Day to those who will make it so down the line.

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