I took Nyquil before I went to bed last night to fight off the last bits of this cold. And to make sure I could imitate bear-like hibernation to the best of my ability, slumbering, snoring, and drooling in my dark, cavernous room while the snow piled high outside. I put on The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to wait for the Nyquil to kick in. Before long, my head and limbs felt like tree trunks. The streetlight outside my bedroom window melted into blurry concentric circles. It was lights out for this girl.
I forgot how much I loved that book, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It reminds me of me and my mother’s relationship. Recently, I wrote a chapter for a book that my professor plans to publish. Some of it gets kind of personal because I talk about my upbringing and my family. It was mildly therapeutic to write. Short, but I thought I did a good job. I was happy that it would be my first legitimate published piece. And then my mom read it.
My sisters and I were sometimes left with a babysitter, but more often left alone because our parents worked at the restaurant all the time. And because they didn’t want us to end up in their shoes, they pushed us hard. We were rarely allowed to hang out with friends. All our time was to be focused on studying. We didn’t own a sleeping bag for the longest time because we weren’t allowed to sleep over at friends’ houses. I don’t know why this fact embarrassed me. My mom sewed up her own version of a sleeping bag using old sheets and blankets, which I quickly denied using in public. There wasn’t even a proper way out of the sleeping bag. You climb in and you climb out. It was like one big sock for your body. The few times I was allowed to sleep over at my neighbor’s house, I lied and said I forgot my sleepover stuff. My friend always had a spare, though. I felt normal inside the sleeping bag. Just like all the other girls.
Another time, I was invited to this girl’s birthday party in the neighborhood. My parents toted me along on their errands on Saturday afternoons after my math lessons in Chinatown. We were shopping for extra restaurant supplies this one particular afternoon, and I timidly asked my mom if we could go buy something for my friend’s birthday present. At first, my mom got mad because I told her so late. The party was that night. Then, she somehow convinced me that decorated plates and soup bowls would be the perfect gift for a 10 year old girl. We got a set from the restaurant supply store. When it was time to open gifts at the party, I tried to make myself invisible. The girl tore my present open and feigned excitement. At that point, I was so embarrassed I couldn’t feel my face anymore. Maybe I had actually become invisible from wishing so hard. Years down the road, this neighborhood friend became too popular to hang out with me, and the story of me giving the gift of dinnerware became a point of ridicule on the school bus.
I can laugh about these stories today and even cherish them. The younger version of me hated not being able to be like everyone else, but the older version of me recognizes moments and memories that are filled with so much sacrificial love on the part of my parents. The children of immigrant parents are blessed to know this better than most. I have no bitterness, no grudge against my parents. My childhood may have been less than ideal at times. It may have been downright humiliating during others, but I wouldn’t ever dream of changing it. My mom read what I wrote for the book chapter, and we exchanged some words in broken English, broken Chinese…and just plain brokenness.
Ma-ma feels so shame.
No, no, no. You shouldn’t. That’s not how I meant it. Did you read the part where I…?
Me and ba-ba didn’t want you girls to grow up and have the same life as us.
I know, ma-ma, I know. We are really thankful for you guys.
At one point, I knew she was about to cry. That would’ve made me start to cry. And since she didn’t want to see me cry or for me to see her cry, we let it go and made light of it. Somehow. It was hard to convince her that I thought she was a great mother. The best mother, really. She told me later that she thought I was a great writer. First time I’ve heard her say that. I wish I could’ve hugged her at that moment and told her how much I loved her. We don’t have problems doing that in our family. We hug a lot. But in that moment, it was hard to move. I just blinked away some tears and kept nodding my head. She just kept washing the dishes. And in this broken way, we’re still pushing through it.