By Rei Tanotsuka, 20 June 2020
My mother is a complex brew…. simultaneously strong and diluted, sometimes a picante astringency is left lingering in the mouth after a sip, other times a bouquet of raw Elvish honey perfumes the air…. not only is she sweet, but she’s great for your self esteem too…. then she can be…. well, mum again. Who is mum?
My mum’s childhood was not a bedtime read of magic castles and princess dresses, she like my father, had a fractured family.
My biological grandmother had the physiology to bear children, but not the mental or financial capacity to rear them, and she spawned a litter! She gave my mum away for a sum akin to a week’s food, accompanied with a sloppy handwritten note forsaking her own child to a future she had no curiosity to know.
My mum recalls reading this note for herself at the age of 8/9 when she found out that she was adopted. It translates to something like this:
“I, Kwok X X, agree to give my daughter (mum’s name) to (adopted grans name), should she live or perish, the matter will never be pursued by me. (signed name of biological grandmother)”
My mum felt singed when she read this, and in a fit of mad rage, she bitterly tore up this note as a tiny child of 8/9.
The high life
My adoptive grandmother loved my mum dearly, the drawback? She was addicted to opium, the personal reason why I despise what the British did. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and was never in need of wants. Easy going, uneducated (because girls in my grandmother’s day weren’t encouraged to go to school), sans a malicious bone in her slight slender body, she came to rely on any pant who was keen to support her when she lost her fortune after WWII. Yes, she became a professional side chick.
This left my mum with a legion of “uncles” whom she would acknowledge, but never pin hopes of stability on. She imbibed, even at a young age, what impermanence means.
My adoptive gran finally settled down with a Shanghainese man, my adoptive grandfather, who became a permanent uncle in my mum’s erratic childhood. The good point? My mum now, on the surface, had a proper “family”. The bad? My grandparents were BOTH high on opium most of the time, plus granddaddy was an alcoholic to boot!
My parents found each other young, my mum was 16 and dad was 18. They were as thick as thieves, and pledged eternal allegiance to each other, however mum refused to take dad’s name even after 9 years of courtship with dad handing over all his earnings to support her and the two drug addicts, when they married. To this day, she goes by her maiden name even though they have been married for a squillion years.
My dad is a man of few words, repetitive “dad jokes”, and to this day, I don’t know if he’s a Dostoevsky or a Where’s Wally?…. is this man who shared his DNA with me really so felicitous and simple? No paradoxes deserving a resolution, no Voynich transcript hidden under the joy of having a KFC night?
My fear with dad is that he will one day pass, and I would have only known him as my dad. I would never have known him as a distinct individual outside of our familial nexus. Mum on the other hand, is my greatest gamble, and I’m not a punter.
Ever since I was a wee lass, mum has been emphatic on the need to be independent as a woman, to earn my own keep… yet she juxtaposed this pearl with unabated celebrity gossip where a Miss so and so slept with a “bloody big deal” and changed her destiny, in turn, lifting her entire clan out of poverty, OR she reiterated tales of the lucrative value of auctioning off one’s virginity. She never EXPLICITLY said this was a path worthy of emulation, but it’s confounding for a child to be fed dichotomies throughout her childhood to anticipate a predictable outcome.
Even as she spent most nights talking to us through our teen angst, she repeatedly dropped the notion that having children was a waste of time and money, everything is given up for kids she fabled. She also echoed stereotypes of the fat unattractive missus, housebound, stupid and anything but urbane…. yet marrying into money with nothing more to do than shop and incinerate the hubby’s earnings was tantamount to the high life…. what was in fact, my mum’s life view? Is it that of the lofty intellectual, morphed into a CEO of a Fortune 500, or that of the beautiful bird kept in a gilded cage, where in exchange for a life of opulence not earned from her own toil, she must subsist only as the pet… to be played with in accordance to the man who is responsible for her food, comfort, toys and a chore free life?
I have 3 other siblings and only my younger sister has children, this was most likely due to the insistence of my brother in law who genuinely adores children and normalcy.
Without him, all 4 of us who grew up under mum’s tutelage, have no offspring…. is this really a coincidence, or did those childhood stories impact us more acutely than we dare admit?
Am I a mummy’s girl? My mum would probably argue no, because I’m a royal pain in her ass, as I argue with her devoid of compunction, but I think I do try too hard to win mum’s validation.
The conundrum is that mum and I get along very well, we have a lot to say, but even though I feel like I want to please her, she can’t help but inadvertently shade me, and then I become cantankerous towards her.
Let me pen the most recent incident. I called mum (usually once a week since I’ve left Oz for almost two decades, and she is advancing in years) and we were talking the same BS all children/parents go through, then totally out of the blue, she says this:
“Do you remember when you first dated Samurai (my husband), you kept going on about how hot he was. We (family) all thought he had wonky teeth and looked funny…. you know what they say, love is blind…”
I called her out on this, but that’s not the point. My grievance is this:
Why would she want to hurt me like that? Why would she say something that she knows would provoke a twinge of ire in most? Did I ask her what she thought of my husband aesthetically? No. Also, my husband is a damn good son in law. The very first time he visited my family in Oz, he brought gifts for EVERYONE even though he was on a student’s budget. All throughout us being together, from dating to the present, he has always shouted them to meals when we went back to Oz (up to 7-8 people a pop) even when he was still struggling financially, and now that he is in a more salubrious fiscal position, he pays for their overseas trips, complete with accommodation. He is extremely friendly with my parents and literally pops off the ass cork in front of them. No pretences, no feelings of a lower state of filial piety because they are not “his” parents. He’s not perfect, but he is as good as a modern day son in law gets. Also, while he ain’t no supermodel (ditto with yours truly) he really is nice looking.. (many tempuras ago).
A digression – Asian men in the West generally find it difficult to get hit on. I remember the first time Samurai came to Oz and I went to try on some clothes in a shop. After whoozing up a storm of skirts, pants and whatnots in the dressing room, I emerged only to find 3 Aussie birds surrounding him. When he saw me, he pointed me out to them and proudly said “she’s my girlfriend!”. One of the girls said “He’s cute”. This is on top of him getting chatted up in Japan quite frequently by the Japanese birds, once again, many tempuras ago.
When we got married, my family flew to Japan for our wedding…my parents came empty handed to meet my father in law for the first time. Not even a Made in China souvenir from the $2 shop was thought of as a common etiquette upon meeting my future family. Meanwhile, my father in law laid out the red carpet. My Japanese dad wrote them a haiku, took them for a VIP tour in the DIET building, along with a private tour in the Imperial palace (back then, he still had a political clout) and shouted them dinner at an upscale, exclusive restaurant where only connections can get a table.
I’m not someone whose judicial claim lies in the monetary value of anything, because the haiku my Japanese dad wrote was essentially “free”, the wooden frame was the only expense imparted, but it really is the thought. How does one’s Asian parents neglect the simple respect for their daughter to just bring even a jar of Aussie honey to their inlaws as a sign of positive future relations? This is what flummoxes me.
You’ve got to understand something, I’m a banana and even I know these simple rules… short of drawing the conclusion that maybe my parents just get along with me, but don’t really “love me” in an all encompassing way to include consideration of my feelings has indeed crossed my mind. I have already told my mother this by the way, so it’s not clandestine.
The gamble I alluded to above is this. Do I continue to let my mother exercise her natural right to express herself in a manner befitting her conscience, or do I distance myself through less contact, and submerge the memories of my mother in opaque glory, dipping the silken montage in colours welcomed by my eyes? Maybe eventually I will only remember her as my personal Teresa, attending to my wintered chest coughs with a jar of Vicks, and cooking Chinese noodles for breakfast?
What’s on the table for mum is even bigger. She knows that even if the ratio remains the same, the more she rattles on, the more nominal faux pas she will make towards me. Should the rest of her life’s interaction with her own daughter be one of an ambassador for diplomacy or one of her authentic self – a daughter of providence in her early life of hard knocks?
I love my mum, as much as I think I know or understand love to be…. if love is seeing someone’s face, but viewing it through time and wanting to know who they are outside of their obligations to you, then I love her.
I am quaintly aware that the emotions I have now due to our interactions , will be mired in longing and a little regret when she passes, like the sepia images of the used to bes, then she will only hold the highest esteem in my heart. Even if you followed every word and every line in my story, you would still not understand the affinity that exists between me and her, likewise with your parental anecdotes.
So who is mum? She’s my mum.