Asian Girl Problem #132: Undermothered

This is probably not a surprise, but I quit my corporate 9-6 job about a month ago. What started as a great environment with coworkers I enjoyed turned sour when each of my peers got fired/quit, leaving upper management and interns (who also eventually left) to hire a whole new office. In the new culture (kind of felt like an all-white sorority), I wasn’t comfortable and didn’t respect most of the work. But I stuck it out for another 5 months because I really wanted to put in a year.

The unhealthy coping habits I developed–as I always to do when chained in a desk–reached a boiling point. Too much coffee and sugar, few meaningful interactions, minimal creative outlet and zero motivation drove me to hedonistic evenings and weekends. It also, thankfully, caused me to escape into books again. I spent mornings reading and started going into the city early before work so I could feel human before joining the machine. Reading x yoga x weed is a good temporary antidote for modern life.

But then a few hiccups in my personal life caused a breakdown where I thought I seriously lost a shred of sanity that I’d never get back, and would become my mother. So I gave my two weeks, and found a new job–it’s everything I want at the moment. It involves food/drink/literature/writing/community events, is close to home, run by good people, and lets me work an ideal schedule. In short, it meets all of my ridiculously picky standards. Too picky for someone my age. If you’re thinking “This bitch is spoiled,” I wouldn’t argue.

That’s a quick update on life events which I’ll come back to in detail another day, but what compelled me to blog again is a post that caught my eye on Facebook today. Specifically, the word “unmothered”. Everyone has their triggers and this concept of being unmothered is the strongest of mine.

Ya’ll know the broad strokes–my mom has suffered from severe depression/anxiety since before I was born, and I caused her postpartum depression. She has the resilience of a toddler, could never hold down a job, dislikes most people, and has suffered from mental disorders across the spectrum.

But she was always in the home–so I was not unmothered, as such. She picked me up from school, cooked, cleaned, and participated in family outings. She was also there to spy on me in class, rifle through my things, and teach me how to have an eating disorder (I didn’t follow through). When she was angry, she was there to throw shade and tell me I ruined her body and that I shouldn’t ever have children. When she was sad, she was there to disappear into her room for days, refusing to speak to my dad so I’d have to be sole caretaker and intermediary.

I cursed her dead so many times, wishing I was unmothered. And I think about the very traditional aka melancholy Chinese song she always sang when I was young.

In short, “Mom is the best in the world. Kids who have moms are like treasure…Kids who don’t are like a lone blade of grass…”

When I was four years old, my mom was pretty and young which was all that mattered. I was in love with her femininity. In the summer when she wore cotton dresses, I was moved to request this song over and over again while we sat on our apartment stoop. I snuggled deeper into her skirt and pitied the poor saps without moms in the song. We were inseparable until I turned five, and then our wavelengths crashed. My mother was sad and too wrapped up in her naivete to give the emotional support a super sensitive kid like me needed. She couldn’t understand how I could be unfulfilled when I had food to eat and clothes to wear–I was so demanding. And I knew she would misunderstand or ignore my feelings, so I stopped sharing them.

And here we (and my secrets) are today. A lot of us, especially those who clash culturally with our family, are underparented. It’s not all bad–I’ve been afforded hefty silver linings by having an absent mother. I learned how to support myself emotionally and have also been mothered by other sources, like my dad, girlfriends, pop culture (bleh).

None of it follows the the pomp and circumstance of a Mother, though–the Mother who wants to hear about for your first bra/period/boyfriend, soothes you through breakups and sickness, and just shows you through example how to be a good person in the world.

But not having all that is perfectly fine, and probably applies to the majority of us. Mothering or fathering has nothing to do with sperm to egg contact. I’d like to be a better mother and father to myself and especially other people. Amidst all the interactions, friendships, relationships whatever, that’s the spirit that could make us all feel less lost and more found


Asian Girl Problem #129: Wanting What You Can’t Have

Talking about the TV I watched as a kid can usually be summed up with “I didn’t have cable.” Which is to say that I was raised on a mix of public television, soap operas and broadcast sitcoms. Considering I was an only child and my parents were happy to use the TV as a babysitter, that means a lot of tube time.

It’s more embarrassing to admit that a lot of the TV I watched were Chinese series or variety shows. Instead of books, my parents stuffed our shelves with VHS recordings of movies they borrowed from their friends. I suspet that my Chinese school and the Asian church we attended every weekend were actually underground trading posts for VHS cassettes. They had to originate somewhere, and my guess is someone would rent the latest shows from one of the two Chinese movie rental places in town, copy them, and send them out into the world like an exotic flu.

You could tell when a VHS had been around the block too much based on the quality of recording, but you’d just have to fill in the blanks for all the times the tape stopped working, or full episodes were blurry and had to be skipped over.

When other kids were watching Star Wars and The Rugrats, I was watching my favorite Chinese tv shows over and over again. Which is why my knowldge of pop culture is horrendous. I actually enjoyed the shows even though most were about kung foo or middle-aged people getting divorced. It served as one of the few activities I could share with my parents and provided us a common ground. Did I need to watch the 30-episode series about the single mother who rediscovers her career and falls in love with her boss? No. But I would watch it all day with my mom if it meant we could talk about how dreamy he was.

My favorite was Fortress Besieged, which I’d started watching around 5. I knew how to recite many of the lines by 6, but had no idea what they meant until I reached my teens. Lucky for me, it was much less soapy and considered one of the classics.

It’s basically a satire about a man in his 20s who is a loser but has pretty good luck in life because he’s handsome and is helped by the wealthy family of his dead fiance. The story follows him from his 20s into his 40s, showing vignettes of the people he meets and their travels to no-name college in the middle of nowhere to become teachers. The third-person omnicient narrator has a really cynical but witty view of the world, and no gender, race or class if safe from his harsh criticism.

Maybe it had a bigger influence on me than I realize. But if that means I was getting an early dose of reality, let me be a world-weary 5 year old. No mid-life crisis for me.

The title is from this idiom: Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.

The main character and his girlfriend who dumped him when she found out he had been engaged

Asian Girl Problem #128: The Best Place To Have Problems

This post is dedicated to California. Sure, I could just quote any Red Hot Chili Pepper song, but in my experience this state has fully ruined my ability to be as happy anywhere else. The level of beauty, diversity, culture and resources it has is indisputable, and it is probably more aligned to my needs and values than any other place. I could even live in LA.

I’m sure California came first, and molded said needs/values of mine to fit its cultural topography. But I totally consented, knowing that I’d end up in the Bay Area long before I’d ever been there.

Like many people, my first time visiting California was unforgettable just in terms of sensory overload. I was around 11 when my mom took me to Santa Barbara to where my aunt, uncle and cousin lived. First of all, we went for winter break, so in addition to escaping the snowstorms in Ohio, we got to experience a bizarrely tropical Christmas and New Year’s.
Santa Barbara was created from a completely different palette, with alien flowers that looked like swans and dragon scales, palms that drew the eye up towards a sky bluer than berry punch, and skin in all hues. People wore clothes which were tiny and beautiful, although it was hard to notice because their bodies were so distracting.

The land produced more bounty and everyone had citrus trees in their yards, causing a pang to our hearts because half of them would never all be eaten or appreciated. We went orange picking, and my mom ate nothing but oranges for breakfast and lunch for the rest of our stay. My aunt bought an avocado to use in her California rolls, and I was not sophisticated enough to handle or enjoy something that looked like an egg and tasted like wax.

This was also a time I was going through a lot of changes and discovering the world, so some instances were coincidental–like my aunt’s homemade cheesecake, experiencing jealousy for other kids, and seeing my dad as an individual person. These had no relation to California, but I’ll still associate them with that time and place.

It’s open-minded and friendly culture is what makes me fall even more in love with the state as an adult. You still have challenges like a growing divide between the rich/poor, high rates of immigration and insufficient aid/understanding towards new cultures, and environmental drains…but put in the same position I’m not sure any other state or country could be any better at dealing with them.

Sometimes I threaten to move to New York, and recently had a job interview that would’ve been happy to give me the opportunity. But I know that I’d come back after a few years of hard partying–and I realize that I could just keep partying here. In the warm, patchouli embrace of Californian land and people. (Yes life is just a long party)

Asian Girl Problem #113: Two Loose Screws Short of a Disorder

Some of my oldest, closest friends told me that they know very little about my food anxieties and the extent of control they have on my everyday life. I don’t think it’s hard to talk about, the occasion just rarely comes up. We’re already bombarded with ED conversations because it’s the perfect modern-day malaise to glamorize, blame society for, and half-joke about. While I enjoy some of them, like this one, the more I think about it, the worse it gets. Better to focus on repeating healthier actions until they become habits. My anxieties can’t be diagnosed, and I’m not endangering my physical health (anymore) so I just pretend it doesn’t exist. Age has also mellowed me, smoothing out many anxieties and giving me permission to be softer, both to myself and to the touch.

If you asked, I’d be quick to tell you the facts of my EDNOS from a detached, clinical point of view.

I count calories, loosely, every day.
I won’t buy junk food unless I plan to leave it at someone else’s house.
Sometimes I can’t stop eating even though I feel full.
ThenI’ll feel anxious afterwards unless I run seven miles.
The first time I dieted was in fourth grade, deciding that to eat only rice porridge and mushrooms. I lasted three days.
I learned to diet by eating under 1000 calories a day in high school and lost 15 pounds.
I gained 25 pounds in college and tried to learn how to throw up from a new best friend.

Then there are the stories that make me struggle for breath, that I mean to blog about at some point. Hopefully I’ll do it sooner than later.

When I was taken to China at 8 and left isolated/ignored in at my grandparents’ house for a month, except during mealtimes.
How the first thing I wanted when I returned to Ohio after that trip, even more than seeing my dad, was Pizza Hut. Which is what I got.
All the candy my mom hid in the house, from Halloweens years past, and all the times I found and ate them without her knowing.
Tales of hunger I heard as a kid from my parents’ generation. Mom ate spoonfuls of sugar when she didn’t have lunch as a child. Dad ate moldy cornbread and pickled radish for weeks on end during his two years of cultural reform in the fields. A family friend boiled her leather belts until they were soft enough to bite through.
The plates of food my dad inhales/d every night after work, only to return to the kitchen an hour later for ice cream or nuts.
When I decided I’d had enough of being mistaken for a boy and wearing baggy clothing in high school. I listened to music and sewed instead of eating, throwing myself into a new obsession with fashion and the power to express myself creatively.

Always this anxiety of being hungry, or full. EDNOS doesn’t understand moderation. It’s either don’t buy groceries for as long as possible or try every kind of junk food. Wait until you’re too weak to move or eat everything behind their backs. It doesn’t matter who’s back–it adds a thrill. Eat a crazy combination of Cheetos dipped in frosting, or claw out lumps of peanut butter with your fingers, or brush your teeth right before you bake a tray of brownies for a party so you never get to know how they turned out, or pick out every broken cookie in the box and then destroy the rest and eat those too because you don’t know how to appreciate whole ones like normal people.

Don’t feel bad. (I don’t.) Do get on my ass about writing a post for each of those memories, though.

Asian Girl Problem #112: My Dad, the Champion of the World

This unexpected aphorism on the last page of Danny the Champion of the World is one of the reasons it’s my favorite childhood book. I remember the first time I read it, perhaps around 10, and being blown away by such a simple story. Unlike most of the books I loved, there was no mystery to be solved, no dating drama, no space/time travel, not even female characters.

Obviously, I knew Roald Dahl was a visionary, just not that he could top fantastical stories of witches and giants. I’d go to his section in the library and work my way around every book under his name, always avoiding DTCOTW, partly because of its thickness and unfortunate cover illustration.

Its magic lies in simple, evocative details and the love between parent and child. Roald taps into what, I dare say, every kid wants—more than dragons and video games and drugs—an amazing mentor who’s curious and not only lets, but goads his/her to explore every natural curiosity.

Like Danny’s dad, mine was the type to suggest we build a kite or sew a doll instead of buying one at the store. He took me on hikes and let me taste berries and flowers (he knew his botany). He included me in every home improvement project and let me take apart any appliance I wanted to so I could look at the tiny electrical landscapes inside. Even when I was in high school, too cool to entertain his whims, he kept doing them because he genuinely liked building clocks and whittling hideous wood figures.

The main narrative of DTCOTW involves a peasant heist where they fill raisins with sleeping powder and feed them to the peasants that live in the woods of a gross landowner who’s out to destroy their indie gas station—random but awesome. Reminds me of the time my dad stole two geese eggs from a nest near our house and took them home to see if we could make them hatch. We put them  in a makeshift incubator and two months later, it was safe to say they wouldn’t see this world. Even though we knew it was messed up, we did it in the name of science.

Asian Girl Problem #111: The Elusive American Sleepover

I call myself an adventurous eater. I’ll enjoy a fish eyeball, shrimp head, chicken feet, lizard or fried grasshopper anytime. Though not as tasty as the aforementioned, I’ll even eat pork blood, slimy sea cucumber, bitter melon or durian if it’s offered. But there are plenty of American food experiences I’ve never had, but crave, such as getting a pizza delivered. Never ordered food delivery, period. The way it’s engrained into American life and has more apps dedicated to it than any other service is literally hard for me to swallow.

When I was young, journeying to a restaurant and eating there was half the fun–my parents made a freakin field trip out of McDonald’s. Eating in-store meant wedidn’t have to dirty dishes, could enjoy free water, and stuff a bag with napkins and ketchup to use for the rest of the week. The common reasons for food delivery were lost on us. No car? Walk your ass there. Too late at night to walk? You shouldn’t be eating anyway–go to bed. And obviously, we weren’t aware of the culture which gave rise to “late night munchies” and “wake and bake.”

Most of all, my parents couldn’t fathom the concept of paying a delivery fee or tip to receive an asinine service, although more than once, my dad considered getting a second job as a pizza deliverer. While my mouth watered every time we saw a Papa John’s car roll through our street, he dreamed about cashing in on the suburban laziness surrounding us.

The one place I did wrap my mouth around some delivery pizza would be at sleepovers, although I spent more time watching them on TGIF than attending real ones. Because there is nothing as terrifying to the Asian mother (or just mine?) as The American Sleepover.

American kids can go from zero to spending the night in the time it takes to make a short phone call, because their sleepovers are dependent on just two factors:

1. Is it okay with Suzie’s parents?
2. Is it a weekend?

For Asian parents intent on defending their daughter’s chastity and pathetic social standing, more need answering:

1. Has it been at least six months since your last sleepover?
2. Will any sentient being with a penis be at Suzie’s house?
3. Does Suzie’s mother have a good job, and know the harmful effects of artificial ingredients?
4. Have you finished all your studies for the next week?
5. Are you working on a group project with Suzie, and can you incorporate piano practice into the sleepover agenda?
6. Does Suzie get better grades than you?
7. What do you do at a sleepover that you can’t do during the day?
8. Why are you not as obedient as _________’s daughter?
9. We need to find you more extracurriculars if you have an extra 12 hours to spend at someone else’s house.
10. Why can’t Suzie stay at our house?

Suzie can’t stay at our house because we don’t have a dog or video games and we can’t mention any boy names. But mostly because we eat fish heads instead of pizza.

Asian Girl Problem #108: Never the Flower Girl

I was just thinking about tagging this post with “angst” but then embarrassingly realized that would apply to everything on this blog. Have I thanked you lately for indulging my angst? Thank you.

I attended a gorgeous wedding of someone I didn’t know last weekend. The first “white” wedding I’ve been to not including that of my dad’s Jewish coworker back when I was like ten. Because I barely knew anyone there, I didn’t want to take photos–so imagine a couple hundred people at big barn house in the middle of a redwood forest, a glowing young couple from equally glowing families, the ceremony performed by an extremely articulate gay best friend, open bar, religion-lite, Pinterest-heavy.

As the minister showered praise on the couple and announced their undying love until everyone was reaching for tissues, two things occurred to me:

1. I don’t ever want to be the center of attention of a multi-thousand dollar party.

2. Is it rude not to invite one’s own family to one’s wedding?

I’ve decided that if that day came, I would officialize it at town hall with any family that cared to come, and then have a party one year later without them. It would be called just that–a “party” with so many cakes and pies it’d put Marie Antoinette to shame. And people could do speeches about me, the groom, love in general, whatever. Mine will probably be excruciatingly long and about Virginia Woolf’s idea of privacy, but they’d have to endure it.

Am I jealous of the effortless girls who seem to have been born and bred to have Hallmark weddings? Duh. But I’m also fiercely protective of my experiences and perspectives, and hey, if you get that invitation to my “party,” know that it will be awkward and weird, but definitely not typical. As the wedding ceremony progressed, I suddenly discovered a repressed memory that made me feel even more out of place and jealous and small.

When I was eight and my family friends got engaged, my first thought was that I needed to be the flower girl. By the time they asked me officially, I’d been prancing around our apartment in a pink dress and every piece of jewelry I could find for days, practicing the walk and petal-toss. At the same time, some fundamental conflict in me was stirring. The same thing that made me run out of the ballet studio crying on my first day. The same thing that fueled my obsession with being a princess but inability to look in the mirror without making a face.

I was obsessed with my prettier, smaller girl friends and lived vicariously through them whenever possible. On top of everything, the bride for this particular wedding was so beautiful. I was in awe in her presence–when she came to visit, I wanted to sit in her lap gripping her shiny necklace forever. I knew she deserved a better flower girl. Not a flower person who had a short bowl cut and pudgy face.

If only someone told me that there is no such thing as a not cute Asian baby(!) at the time.

A few days before the wedding, I told my parents I couldn’t. They called in for a backup girl, and everyone chalked it up to me being shy as usual. I cried all day. The next year, I was asked to be flower girl by another couple I didn’t know nearly as well. Turning it down, giving up on myself, was de rigueur the second time around. Maybe having a strong female role model would’ve made it easier to feel worthy and pursue the girly experiences I craved. Instead, I fumbled with makeup, buying a bra, dating, and receiving attention (especially from males). But I did continue to love and support and worship other girls who I secretly aspired to be, which in some twisted way, made me a pretty rad girl friend.

I can’t think of any positive takeaway from this memory–it just disappoints me and makes me wonder if that same girl is still at work, pulling me back from every wonderful experience that demands her to enter the spotlight. Specifically, every experience that demands the femininity that she’s always felt lacking. But despite making me feel really sappy and sorry for myself, I hope sharing it will make it less of an angsty personal experience and more of a relatable childhood memory that I’ve moved beyond.