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I have to admit, this is not an easy post for me to write. I’ve stopped and started a dozen times and lost track of how many drafts I’ve gone through, but, as they say, writing is about “bleeding on to the page”, so here goes:
I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my mother.
It’s not a personality clash or the usual generation gap, it’s the fact that I’ve always wondered if she wanted to have me in the first place.
“I wish I’d never given birth to you,” is a phrase I’ve heard often.
One time I thought she was righting her terrible mistake by giving me a beating so savage, my kindergarten teacher wanted to call the police (and this is in China, where hitting your kids is seen as a sign of good parenting).
I was covered in so many bruises I had to lie and say I was hit by a bike. Partially, I was covering for my mother (if I told on her, she’d probably kill me), and partially I was embarrassed that I had, once again, incited her rage.
Another time, she hit me for the crime of being sick. “You didn’t wear your winter coat like I told you to, so every time you cough, I slap you.”
I ended up developing a wolverine-level of pain tolerance as a result of constantly having to ward off her blows.
So, it may not come as a surprise when people ask us “so are you having kids?” I don’t feel a compulsion to say yes. Would you want to experience the “joy of motherhood” if you spent most of your childhood terrified of your mom?
Anyway, all this is to say that up until recently, I was convinced that my relationship with my mother was unfixable.
As far as relationships go, this was, according to Wanderer, one of the most broken relationships he’d ever seen.
While we were still working, every visit with my parents ended up with me and mom screaming at each other over the kitchen table in Mandarin while Wanderer, unable to understand Mandarin since he’s from Hong Kong and only speaks Cantonese, would look on in stunned silence. Unable to convince me to stop torturing myself by cutting off contact with my parents out of a misplaced sense of filial devotion, he settled on his own coping mechanism: When we started fighting he would retreat into our upstairs bedroom and pass the time by downing shots of flavoured vodka.
The pattern became so regular that his co-workers would spot the bottle of vodka sitting at his desk and joke “off to visit the in-laws again?”
When we became FI and quit our jobs, upon informing my parents, we (surprise surprise) had a HUGE fight and didn’t communicate for months.
Fast forward to 2020, a family emergency happened, completely blindsiding us. The family emergency was on Wanderer’s side, but as an only child, this forced me to confront a cold hard truth. Like many mainland Chinese people my generation, I am an only child. Whether I liked it or not, as my parents get older, the task of taking care of them will fall squarely on my shoulders.
I couldn’t remain estranged from my mother. If for no other reason, that would take away the precious time I’d spend with my dad. And for those of you who’ve read Quit Like a Millionaire, you know that my dad is my hero and the main reason I am who I am today.
So with COVID wiping out our schedule, I had no more excuses or distractions. I had no choice. I had to fix my relationship with my mother.
But how do you fix a relationship with over 30 years of baggage? 30 years of both physical and emotional abuse? How do you fix a relationship with someone who’s terrorized you for most of your life?
The fix, it turns out, was sparked by a Chautauqua reunion, which took place last year when a bunch of us rented an AirBnb together in Portugal for a week. What was supposed to be a mastermind session about passion projects turned into a giant cry fest with all of us revealing our hidden emotional scars. It was like someone had spritzed a buttload of empathy pheromones into the air, turning us all into sobbing, blubbering messes. Having shown each other our emotional scars, we hugged and gave suggestions for how we can fix or at least manage our emotional trauma.
That night and a half a box of tissues later, I penned a letter to my mom. This is not something I’ve had the courage to do in the last 30+ years of my life but comforted by my Chautauqua family and inspired by their stories, I was spurred into action. What made it easier was telling myself I never had to send it. I didn’t have to waste mental energy thinking about the argument we’d get into about who was right or wrong. The letter wasn’t about proving her wrong or getting her to acknowledge my suffering, it was about acknowledging my own pain.
Something magical happened after I wrote that letter. It was cathartic, because as much as it was a letter for my mother, it was also a letter for me. Or rather more specifically, my past self. I felt as if I went back in time and comforted my childhood self. I wanted to tell that kid that yes, my mother hurt me, and yes, it wasn’t fair what happened. But I also wanted to tell her that I would survive it, and not only did all of that abuse not screw me up, it made me into someone special. Someone that others even looked up to. Even though she had terrorized me for so many years of my life, I had ended up stronger for it. I had ended up successful and happy anyway.
I realized at that point that forgiveness isn’t for the other person, it’s for you. It’s not that you’re forgetting what they did and turning the other cheek, it’s that you’ve agreed to heal yourself by acknowledging your own pain.
I didn’t need my mother to acknowledge the hurt she caused me because I acknowledged it to myself. I didn’t need her permission to move on. I could decide that on my own.
So I decided to forgive her. I decided to seize my power back.
I’m not sure why exactly, but after I wrote that letter, the next time I went to visit my mother, I no longer felt triggered by her attacks. When she called me “fat”, “ugly” or pointed out my “hideous freckles”, I simply didn’t react.
And because I was no longer triggered or defensive, for the first time ever I sat down with her and asked about her childhood. I told her I was writing a book on the Chinese cultural revolution and needed her to tell me about her past for research purposes.
It turns out, that was the first time anyone had ever asked her about her experience. It was the first time I’d ever heard my mother’s story. The first time anyone had ever listened.
“The day after I was born, your Popo (grandmother) took me to meet her father for the first time. He was in jail and awaiting execution. His crime was owning land, because during the revolution, landlords, teachers, doctors—basically anyone who was educated or had money—were deemed bourgeois and enemies of the state. He was to be executed the next day.
That was the last time I ever saw him. The next day, your Popo, wrapped me in a blanket and took me with her to claim his body from the morgue. That’s how I came into the world—full of fear and witnessing death.”
“When I was 10 years old, your Popo woke me up at 5 AM every morning to help her grow vegetables in a graveyard. The party confiscated everything we had and made it illegal for us to own any land or grow any food, so we had no choice but to secretly grow food in a graveyard. After months of hard work, I found out that thieves had stolen our food. I cried non-stop for 3 days.”
“Did you know I had a little brother? No, not the uncle you grew up with. I had a third brother. You never met him because he died way before you were born. When I was 16, your uncle, 6-year-old at the time, went to pick up some firewood by the river, to tend to the fireplace. Your Popo (grandmother) and GongGong (grandfather) had to work odd jobs, like selling corn pancakes on the street or carrying heavy rocks in a quarry because, as former landlords, they were banned from owning anything or having regular jobs, so they didn’t have time to watch him. He lost his footing and was swept away by the river. That was one of the worst days of my life.”
These are just some of the stories she told me whenever I went home to visit.
I was the journalist; she was my interviewee. In that safe space, there was no judging, no anger, no blame. Simply listening and capturing the story down on paper.
Sometimes I had to switch notebooks because I was crying so much, I couldn’t read what I wrote down.
I finally realized that it was generational trauma that had destroyed our relationship.
My mother didn’t choose the horrors that happened to her and I didn’t fully understand what she’d gone through. I didn’t understand, because in all my years of dodging her blows (both physical and mental), I never thought to ask.
By sharing those moments, for the first time in 30 years, we finally began to understand each other. Little by little our relationship began to heal.
“Wow, your mom looks happy these days!” Wanderer told me the other day. “She’s actually smiling!”
“I know,” I said. “It’s creepy.”
The other day, she took me shopping because “your father and I feel bad that when you were growing up, we didn’t have the financial resources to give you a happy childhood.”
She followed it up by saying I should probably lose some weight because the dress I picked out emphasizes my fat knees, but hey, baby steps, right?
I am now a believer that even the most broken relationships can be healed. But first, you have to heal yourself.
For those of you who struggle with challenging relationships, you are not alone. There is hope. Now, I’m not saying that all difficult relationships can be fixed because some can’t. Sometimes you have to set boundaries, accept that you were never meant to have the relationship you want and move on. Other times, you have to let go of the “Full House”, “After School Special” parental relationship you long for and accept your parents for who they are, faults and all.
And sometimes you have to find out the history that led you to this point. That doesn’t excuse what happened to you, but it does, in some cases, give you closure, to help you understand where the abuse came from.
Even though COVID completely wiped our schedule and screwed up our year, the silver lining is that, for the first time in 30+ years, I understand my mother. Our relationship is not perfect, and my mother still struggles with severe paranoia and PTSD from the cultural revolution, but the pandemic gave me the time and space to understand her—something that I didn’t think was possible at all.
So, for everyone out there who’s struggling during this difficult time, know that even in the darkness, sometimes you can still find a ray of light. And sometimes, a supportive group of friends sharing your struggles, is all you need to be inspired to fix what you thought was unfixable.
What do you think? Have you ever struggled with a difficult relationship or have you ever experienced generational trauma?
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