If I look objectively at my mother’s achievements, she is an amazing woman. She is strong, independent, and to me, fully embodies the saying “women can do anything”. When she was at school, she wrote essays and entered them into competitions to win money to buy her own books, many of which my sister and I read when we were young. She then came to Australia to study, before returning to Malaysia. She got married, settled into a job in Singapore – and then decided to move her whole life to Brisbane to start a family. She has run an optometry business here, on her own, for the past 25 years. Despite a litany of changes to Medicare, and being located in one of the most densely populated areas of optometrists in Brisbane, she’s still going strong.
I say that I look at my mother’s achievements objectively because we still don’t really get along. She is opinionated, headstrong, and stubborn, and I suspect these characteristics lie at the heart of our often tense relationship. I know my mother’s father was strict on her, and I believe she truly believes what she says is true. But we don’t talk back to our parents. It is a sign of gross disobedience, and I think both of my parents are too stubborn to really take in any ‘feedback’ either my sister or I would have for them.
I believe my parents truly thought they were giving my sister and me independence. But it was independence on their terms, and it would take me a while to figure out how to reclaim that independence for myself.
Throughout my childhood, my mother tried to convince me I was lucky because I was allowed to go on school camps. ‘So many other parents won’t let their children go, but I think it’s important for your social development,’ she would say, in a self-congratulatory manner. And yet I was only allowed to go to two birthday parties while I was at school – and they were both when I was in grade one. I was only allowed to go to a friend’s eighteenth because she lived two minutes’ drive away. Even then, I had to be home by ten. No later. (I still got really drunk, though).
I wasn’t allowed to stay over at anyone’s house, no matter how good a friend they were. When I was 18, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I absconded (embarrassingly, for a night of playing Starcraft with my friends), but not before writing a lengthy note detailing why, logically, I should be allowed to go out for one night. I didn’t tell them where I was, but I told them I would be back the next morning. And when I returned, I was lectured, threatened, and grounded for six weeks.
My mother also claims that my sister and I were lucky to have been able to choose our own career paths. Yet I was not really allowed to choose the subjects I wanted to do in high school, and she tried to convince me that I needed a medical degree in order to be a good scientist. Even now, two graduations later, I still feel as if my parents are disappointed in the field I have decided to pursue.
Independence, then, is not only a physical construct, but an emotional one too, and they have an almost symbiotic relationship. It has become easier to distance myself from my parents’ ideas of who I should be and what I should be doing with my life since I forced my way out of my childhood home – though, that hasn’t stopped them from coming to my apartment and banging on my door at 6am on a Saturday, demanding to be let in. The physical distance has allowed me to come to terms with what I now understand to be emotional abuse. I suspect the roots of such emotional abuse come from a socially conservative view of the nuclear family, and the power dynamics at play between parent and child.
Once, in the midst of a lecture, my mother declared, ‘I wish I had never taught you and your sister to be independent’. I was taken aback by this statement, and it still sticks out in my mind as one of the most harmful things either of my parents have ever said or done to me. I have had people tell me that I was overreacting, that because I’d never been a parent, I didn’t understand the pain of having to let go of a child you had raised and nurtured. On the flip side, it seemed odd that my mother, an extremely independent woman, would say such a thing. Upon reflection, it was probably a sign that my mother felt like she was losing control over us, that we were growing up – and growing up westernised. We weren’t filial enough, and that made us bad daughters.
In a wider context, my mother’s sentiment can be intensely damaging, especially in a society that already (unconsciously) fetishises Asian women as either meek and obedient or evil and soul-sucking. That being said, my parents did encourage me to explore all sorts of interests – I had an intellectual freedom that almost certainly ended up influencing the way I see myself, and my place in the world. Despite thinking that Pokemon was the devil incarnate, I was allowed to read anything I wanted, and I did so with gusto. I read anything I could get my hands on, from Enid Blyton books to genetics textbooks and everything in between.
I told my parents I was moving out three days before the fact. I knew they would be shocked, but I also knew this was the way it had to be. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to take the emotional manipulation for any longer than a few days, and in any case – I was taking my life back. My parents had instilled in me many good virtues, including those of hard work, patience, and politeness. But I wanted to be me. And I couldn’t be that if I was still living with my parents.
Breaking that barrier of physical independence meant my sister was more independent in her formative teenage years, and she now also has a healthier relationship with our parents. I’m glad that she was able to have those experiences, and that she had a far easier time of it when she also decided to move out of home. Now that it’s been a couple of years since both my sister and I have moved out, I think my mother is secretly proud that we are both so independent. My sister says she talks about us frequently to her friends and clients, boasting about our achievements. I just wish she would tell us that to our faces.
Sometimes I think about what I would be like to my children, if and when I have them. I hope I will have learned from my own experiences and my parents’ mistakes. I hope I will have the courage to give them the physical, emotional, and intellectual independence they deserve.
Image: Larm Rmah
Yen-Rong is the founder and editor-in-chief of Pencilled In, a literary magazine dedicated to showcasing work by young Asian Australian artists. She is based in Brisbane, where she shares her apartment and writing space with her cat, Autumn. Her work can be found at her website, http://inexorablist.com/, or you can follow her thoughts on Twitter @inexorablist.