By Yanchao Huang, who was born in Singapore and is of Chinese descent.
I was never really sure what went through my mother’s mind when I told her that I wanted to get a master’s degree overseas. Keyword: Overseas. As a typical East Asian parent, she’s never tried to hide her desire for me to settle down and start a family within our home country of Singapore, especially since I’m the eldest son. However, I’ve always felt that she hides quite a lot of her thoughts and feelings. It’s hard trying to figure them out sometimes. I could sense her disappointment when I broke the news, but I was sure that there were some other emotions going on. Was it pride? Because I’d gotten into a top-tier university in Melbourne, Australia? Was it fear? That I would one day decide to settle down somewhere 6000km away from home? Or was it just worry? The way all mothers never stop worrying about their children? It was difficult to tell.
I always knew I was my mother’s favourite, something that I was sure my younger brother agreed with but never admitted openly. I was a stereotypically good East Asian child: good grades, good schools, well-behaved, and diligent in my Buddhist practice. She was supportive of my decision to major in psychology for my undergrad, far from the stereotypical doctor-lawyer continuum. My father, on the other hand, wanted me to be an engineer, citing my strength in the sciences and the job security the field offered. I did psychology in the end.
Perhaps the few things that didn’t live up to her expectations were that my room was (and remains) in a constant mess, and that I didn’t quite know how to communicate with her. She was an authoritative parent, and I was pretty much trained to fear her punishments. Placed in a “greenhouse” from birth, not one built by glass but instead a series of punishments. When I was a kid it was scoldings; as I grew older it became guilt trips. I quickly learned the best way to avoid them was to refer the decision making to my mother. And thus, I grew into a “strawberry”, or whatever the baby boomers like to call millennials. Because I’m “soft” and scared of making mistakes and getting myself bruised. It wasn’t exactly the upbringing I would have preferred, but I am deeply grateful for the love and care that she has given me. Always.
I told her that the reason for going overseas was to get a more recognised master’s degree than those I could get in Singapore, and to see a social service system more established than the one I was used to. I wanted to experience life in another country, to experience culture shock. What I didn’t tell her was that I also wanted to learn to be free from the fear of making mistakes. I knew I wouldn’t like her response.
Ironically, it was the various lessons and research papers that I had read during my journey in psychology that allowed me to realise my upbringing was partially to blame for how things turned out. Things like my anxiety issues and depressive tendencies. I could have easily written a 2000-word essay on these childhood influences, with citations in APA format. But would presenting it to her really have helped our relationship? Maybe not. My mother hadn’t planned for things to turn out this way; it was how many of those from her generation parented.
I remember a few months back when I was in the car with Mum and Dad. Mum was complaining that my brother and I don’t communicate much with her and declared that she wanted to talk to us more. I just continued staring out of the window. It wasn’t the fact that I wasn’t appreciative of her efforts to try, but I had never felt heard when speaking with her, as if she always wanted to have the final say, as if the conversation ended before it even began.
At least she was willing to start.
The last 24 hours before flying back for the summer break was a whirlwind: The trip to Chadstone to get extra food souvenirs. The discovery that I had dropped my student ID. The rush to pack my stuff. The staying up till 5am to pack and clean. The repacking at the airport, as my bathroom scale was off. The checking in with no more than 10 minutes to spare as I half ran all the way to my gate, hugging and kicking a duffel bag of food with torn straps. Well, it was a free gym session.
I only calmed down after the plane reached cruising altitude. My mind drifted back to the Facetime conversation I had with my mum the night before.
“Are you done packing?” my mum asked in Chinese.
“No,” I responded, irritated.
“Okay, then you continue to go and pack.”
“Okay, see you.”
It was the shortest FaceTime conversation have had in my life. I hated to be interrupted and having my concentration broken, and I was racing against time to have all my stuff packed into the limited space I have. But a split second before the line disconnected, I saw that my dad and grandma were at her side as the screen zoomed out. I had a sudden realisation that I should have been more understanding. They probably wanted to squeeze in their last words of concern and safety precautions: reminders to bring my passport, making sure that I had sent an alarm to wake up on time, stuff like that.
Catastrophic thoughts flashed (even though I know the odds of these happening are a million to one): What if it was the last conversation I’d ever have with her? What if my plane crashed? Or the car she was in crashed? Would that be how I’d want her to remember the last conversation she’d ever have with me, her eldest son? After forcing a ton of guilt on her for interrupting something as minor as me packing luggage?
This short conversation with my mother reminded me of an old Chinese-Singaporean TV drama that I barely watched and don’t remember the name of. What made the show stand out from my memory was the disgust my mum and my grandma had for the wife of the protagonist. As I clearly don’t remember how the story goes exactly, I’m going to cook up a typical episode:
- Gang leader protagonist and friends plan something dangerous to save a captured comrade. Wife left in the dark.
- Protagonist and friends secretly go off to execute the plan.
- Wife gets worried to bits after:
- sensing something wrong and trying to dig up what her husband and his friends are up to
- catching wind of their plan
- Wife rushes to the scene, accidentally sabotaging protagonist’s supposedly perfect plan, e.g. by getting herself captured.
- Plan fails.
- Protagonist is pissed off at the wife. Wife says she was worried.
- Cycle repeats.
Finally, after that very FaceTime conversation with my mother, I had a feasible hypothesis for the actions of the unintending mission-saboteur: the whole time, she had been worried. Just as the wife must’ve made clear in the drama. What the show had failed to reveal, however, or what I had never picked up on, was the true reason behind the wife’s worry: the lack of trust and communication between her and her husband. That famous pair of buzz words.
So technically speaking, the wife’s behaviour still made some kind of sense and was not entirely her fault. The husband, though, about to engage in near-suicidal dangerous behaviour, might wish to placate the wife in some way. (Note: I’m not supporting such behaviour; I’m just analysing it.)
And in my context, I’d been like that husband. Though I was not doing anything dangerous per se, the lack of communication made my mother worry. Five months was the longest time I’d ever been away from home. No mother in her right mind would not miss her child if they were gone for that long.
Perhaps, it was time to be more proactive in updating her about my life in Australia, so that she didn’t have to wait till every Sunday’s FaceTime call to find out whether I was still alive, and to put her mind at ease. So that I could get used to communicating with her. Start small then work towards the deeper stuff. Yes, it was easier to lie that everything was alright, even though I clearly appear stressed out on her screen back home. And she wouldn’t buy that lie.
At least I knew where to start.
I finally had a chance to speak to my mum, days before I was due to return to Melbourne for my studies. I wasn’t planning to head home again for two semesters this time. She had better listen. And I had better open up. We sat down at a restaurant to have bak kueh teh, a peppery pork-ribs soup; a Singaporean dish that we both love and knew I would miss.
We started with some small talk and pleasantries. Funny how I had to do this with my own parent. She too sensed that a serious topic lay ahead, so we avoided it the begining. Such conversations were obviously uncomfortable; the typical East Asian family seldom speaks beyond such pleasantries. As the dinner went by, and the level of soup left in the bowl dropped lower and lower, it became harder and harder to raise the topic. But I knew I had to try, especially if I wanted to improve our relationship. I picked off the last bits of meat on the rib before tossing the bone into the small bins provided. I spoke in Chinese:
“Mum, you mentioned last time before I flew to Australia that you wanted to communicate with us more?”
“Yes, but everyone ended up so busy, and we didn’t have much quality time together.”
“I know, I wish we could have done this earlier.”
“Yeah. You need to take good care of yourself over there. Don’t save on food.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve been fine for the past half-year there, right?”
“Mum, sometimes I wish you would listen to us a little better. Sometimes I feel that you’re listening just to reply to us, but not listening to understand our point of view.”
“How?” she asked. She was clearly taken aback.
“Like sometimes, when I’m trying to tell you something, you’ve decided that I’m wrong before I’ve even spoken.”
“I see. I never intend for that to happen.”
“I know you don’t. I know you mean well for us.”
“So, what can I do?” She was clearly as uncomfortable as I was in this conversation, but I could sense her determination to make things right.
“Try to understand the reasons behind our decisions. You might not agree with them. You don’t have to. But don’t dismiss them so quickly and try to understand why we are making them.”
“Okay. I’ll try.”
We drank the remaining soup in silence. It was tough, but I was really glad I had taken the difficult first step to connect with her. I had to, if I ever wanted to have a closer more open relationship with her.
At least that’s a start.