The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
You drink this soup I made for you; it will make you stronger and smarter and give you chi. You don’t do what I say, you’ll die a slow and painful death. But you’re a grown woman. I can’t tell you what to do. The choice is up to you.
- My Mother’s advice to me since birth
There’s Nothing Like a Mother’s Love for Her Children: Tough Love vs. Tough Luck
My earliest memory is around the age of 4, when my Mother took me to see a witch doctor, as I wasn’t sleeping well at night. She was convinced that I was spooked by a wayward spirit, because her usual tactic of threatening me with an illness or an arrest by the police wasn’t working.
The witch doctor’s house was in an area surrounded by huge trees with thick trunks and gnarled roots that came out of the ground like knotty, arthritic fingers. His house was cold, dark and musty. I was not allowed to look at the witch doctor’s face. For 20 minutes I had to stand perfectly still while the witch doctor mumbled witch phrases, danced around me and spat witch water all over my face and body. Afterwards, I went home and had to bathe in the ashes of burned incense and paper. There’s a picture of me fat, naked and bawling, standing in a tub of water, plastered with sad pieces of ash. I guess my parents thought this was a Kodak moment.
I don’t remember when I started sleeping normally again, or that I had even slept poorly in the first place, but I will never forget that my Mother had paid a grown man to spit water on me and make me bathe in ashes. Nowadays, I could go on Craigslist and find a guy like that for free - or one who would pay me for this rare and exquisite opportunity.
When I recently asked my Mother about the witch doctor she said, “Susan, nobody will love you more than your parents. You’re sleeping fine at night now, right? So what’s the problem?” Then, she looked at me closely. “But we’re gonna have to do something about the crow’s feet and the smile lines that are starting to come up on your face. Can you get me that salve? You know, the one your Father uses for his cracked heels. It’s over by the nightstand next to his side of the bed.”
Patience & Perseverance Will Lead You to Victory: Bladder of Gold
Growing up, the family to beat were the Wangs. The Wang kids – Lisa, Betty, and Robert – were so competitive that they could make a contest out of whose nose was whistling the loudest – and did. All three kids played various instruments, participated in team sports and excelled in their studies to the point where their teachers would send notes to the Wang parents, gushing about what an absolute joy and honor it was for them to be teaching such gifted children. We knew their teachers did this, because whenever it happened Mrs. Wang would call my Mother with the news. But being a passive-aggressive Chinese, Mrs. Wang would veil the glory of her children’s accomplishments by quietly insulting me and my sister, Annie’s, intelligence.
How’s Annie doing in school now? Is she still eating crayons? She’s stopped that, has she? Oh…it’s felt markers now, is it? Well, at least that’s water-soluble. Not much happening on this end. Robert won the school Science Fair…again, but got only 98% instead of the 100% he got last year. (Sigh) I can see he’s going to be trouble, that one….
Looking at my Mother’s twisted face during those conversations, you could see her thinking, Fuck you, you over-achieving bitch and your freakshow kids! My Mother probably imagined gouging Mrs. Wang’s beady little eyes out with her fingernails. But because of her anxiety over Crayola-breath Annie and too-ugly-for-words Susan (in Junior High I got a botched old-lady perm and ended up with an Afro the size of a manhole cover and the texture of Astroturf) my Mother could never grow nails long enough to gouge out anyone’s eyes. And she was constantly reminded of her failure whenever Mrs. Wang would slyly suggest they go out for manicures.
Going over to the Wang kids to play on a Saturday afternoon was never really play – it was more like an opportunity for Lisa and Betty to show off their skill at everything, and another chance for Annie and I to reveal what incredible asses we were.
Let’s play a game! I’ll write an algebraic equation we all have to answer, and the loser will have to play an odd-numbered Chopin Nocturne in a minor key, except the left hand will play the right hand part and the right had will play the left hand part. Then whoever wins will get to make up another question in the category of neurology or astrophysics.
Robert, who never participated our games, would sit huddled in the corner doing what looked either like smelling his fingers after eating fried chicken or masturbating. It was hard to tell the difference with him. Robert only spoke in Star Wars or Star Trek terms. For example, if we got too loud during our games, Robert might say something like, “Beam me up, Scotty. Get me outta here!” Or, if Annie and I were falling miserably behind on the game, which we always were, Robert would tell us to use the force.
Knowing that we could never compete with the Wang kids in traditional areas, Annie and I became masters in niche fields. Annie is the undisputed champion at burping out the literary classics. She could burp an entire paragraph of a novel or quote a line from Shakespeare –
Whaat’s in aaa naaame? Thaaaat with we caaall aaa rose by aaany other word would smell aass sweet.
- William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet
I, on the other hand, am proud of my unique ability to drink half a gallon of cranberry juice right before bedtime and sleep for 6 hours straight, without having to go to the bathroom. It’s a skill I’ve perfected in China, where I would sometimes have to wait an entire day for a decent bathroom that’s not a plastic-bag-lined wastebasket, or a pothole. I know my skill may not seem like much now, but one day when the Wang kids are in their 50s, I’ll call them up and – with my faucet running in the background, Annie flushing the toilet every 5 minutes, while making whistling noises – have two-hour conversations about the beneficial effects of ingesting vast amounts of beverages and soups. And the Wang kids, dying to pee, will succumb to my clever tactics and finally reveal how many times they’ve stubbed their toes when getting up at night to go to the bathroom, or mistaking the laundry hamper for the toilet.
Because when we’re in our twilight years, nobody will remember who received a full scholarship to MIT, or played an important role in developing some of Electronic Arts’ best-selling games. The one who triumphs will be the one without any visible adult diaper lines; the one who can hold it in through 3 rounds of golf, 5 hours of extreme Mahjong or death match shuffleboarding. Through patience and perseverance, I know my bladder of gold and I will finally achieve the glory that we deserve.
To Give is Better than to Receive: The Gift that Kept on Giving
In the early-1980s, the daughter of our family friend, Amy Han, lived with us in Vancouver for several months, while she took remedial English courses at a local community college. Amy grew up in Japan and as soon as she arrived, gave my Mother an expensive Japanese designer sweater.
To say the object was a sweater was an understatement. Japanese fashion is known for being good quality, but eclectic. The sweater looked as if a radioactive skunk had fornicated with a bowl of fruit loops and both crashed into the Vegas Strip. We weren’t sure whether the amorphous object was a sweater-dress, a tunic, camouflage wear, or just a sweater. There were only two holes: one for the head and one for the arm. But which arm? And being that it was a Japanese designer sweater – was the other hole even for a head? The sweater made anyone who wore it look like a psychedelic yeti who had dropped acid one too many times during the 70s.
The saving grace of this sweater was that it was made with the finest mohair, wool, and maybe even a a few strands of Baby Jesus’ hair. Anyone could tell the fine workmanship and quality that went into the sweater – provided he wasn’t already blinded by its design. Because of this, my Mother did a lot of soul searching before deciding to re-gift the sweater. And her chosen recipient astounded us all – Mrs. Wang.
There were several reasons why Mrs. Wang was the most logical choice. First, Mrs. Wang was incredibly cheap and would never purchase a sweater like this for herself. For my Mother, who had endured years of Mrs. Wang’s condescension, it was one-upping her. Second, the fact that such an expensive sweater was so nails-on-the-chalkboard hideous would provide Mrs. Wang with a dilemma – should she wear the sweater and be treated like a leper in her community? Or, should she donate it to the goodwill, or re-gift it? But it’s such a valuable sweater, how could she donate or re-gift it?
And finally, my Mother figured that Mrs. Wang – the woman who bought clothes for her kids based on the color scheme of their carpet (beige berber) – was the most likely sighted person she knew who would wear the sweater.
Several months after we gave the sweater to Mrs. Wang, our Great Aunt’s sister visited from Beijing. Everyone, including the Wangs, got together for a big welcome dinner and gifts were exchanged. After Great Aunt’s sister left, we had a smaller gathering, without the Wangs, to celebrate my Grandmother’s birthday. More gifts were exchanged. Several days after my Grandmother’s birthday, my Grandmother called up my Mother and sounded apologetic. She thanked us for the lovely gifts we gave her for her birthday; they were not necessary but appreciated. But there was one gift she received from our Great Aunt, which she felt was more *appropriate* for my Mother.
“What is it?” my Mother asked, thinking it was something too flashy for my Grandma, like a sweater with sparkles, or a beaded scarf.
Well, I’m sure you can all guess what the mystery gift from my Grandmother was. Like a dog separated from its owner, the sweater made its circuitous route back to my Mother, this time smelling of mothballs and incense – proving once again: it’s always better to give than to receive.