Learning to Be Human

(Trigger Warning: Physical and emotional abuse.)

I am afraid to talk about why I am angry with my mother.

Well, I’m not currently angry with her.

By that I mean I’m not actively mad at her. Like, she hasn’t done anything to incur my wrath or anger. She has been her normal, wonderful self.

But.

am mad about a lot of things from when my brother and I were growing up.

I am very angry about it, in fact.

So angry that though I have been aware of these feelings for quite some time, I rarely allow even more than a blip of it to manifest.

Even now, when I have discussed it occasionally with my therapist, Dr. T, I only skim the surface of my anger.

I am very afraid.

I am afraid that if I think about it, dig it out, and look it in the eye, that I will be so angry that I will not be able to be around my mother, whom I love.

I am afraid that if we ever talk about it, I will explode and then it will ruin what I find to be a perfectly acceptable relationship with my mother. That it will play into the same script of how my mother and I handle conflict with each other.

That it will justify her insistence that I am just like my father.

I am afraid because I love her and love the relationship she has with my children and if I break it, then my children will lose out on her presence in their lives.

I am afraid even as I write this piece. There is a pit of dread in my stomach. I have been circling around this topic for years and I want to vomit just typing these words on screen.

My fingers are trembling.

I am deeply afraid.

When I was a child, I adored my father.

He was so fun and exciting. He told the best jokes, was the life of every party, was so clever and smart and big and handsome and larger than life.

He was everything to me.

I loved my mother, of course. But in my memory, she’s not really there. Not because she wasn’t present, but she seems to me a shadow in the background. How could I even see her in the shade of my father, the sun?

Of course, it wasn’t fair. My father went back to Taiwan to work when I was in the fifth grade and was gone for months at a time. My mother was left to be a single parent, supporting us, providing for us, doing everything for us – including the hard part of parenting us.

My father would come back for two weeks every three months and be fun, take us on trips, play games, injecting life into our family.

How could she possibly compete?

I did not know that even then, he was already having affairs and deceiving us.

How could I? My mother never told me.

Sometime in the intervening years, I placed my mother on a pedestal. She was the victim in our family saga. The injured. The wronged.

If anyone dared criticize her, I would be inflamed and respond in a rage.

She was the offended party. How dare anyone make any remarks on her choices? She did the best she could! She was so young! She was alone! Her Taiwanese and Chinese Christian culture trapped her!

YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND HER HOW DARE YOU JUDGE HER?!?

And of course, those circumstance are still true; still valid.

But it is no longer enough.

It is no longer a narrative that fits.

It no longer fits because it is not entirely true.

It is not the whole of it.

Part of the reason it is so hard for me to think about my anger at my mother is because I am such an extreme person. In my mind, you are either a good person or a bad person. Hero or villain. Perfect or damned.

There is no room to be human.

I have cast my family narrative with my mother as the victim, my father as villain, and my brother and I as the supporting characters. The clever children upon whom plot points hinge, but never the main characters.

Only my father had agency. The rest of us revolved around him and reacted to whatever bombs he exploded into our lives.

But that is not true, either.

The other day, Dr. T expressed surprise that I described my father as so full of life, so fun, so vibrant. She said up until that point, I had always described my father as a horrible human being.

I have been seeing Dr. T for three years.

This is how deeply I have entrenched myself in this narrative.

My father, the devil himself. The consummate con artist. The truly terrible person my mother thinks I am exactly like.

I am afraid to poke around the anger I hold of my mother because it doesn’t fit the narrative I have created in order to cope with my father’s abuse and her role in it.

I am afraid to talk about how she utterly failed to protect me and my brother from my father because I can feel the rage and despair and fear and hurt and bewilderment rising in my chest, lodging itself there because I refuse to break down weeping in public where I am writing this.

I am afraid because though she was young and afraid and so many things I will never fully understand, she failed.

She failed her fundamental job as a mother: to keep us safe.

She did not protect us from my father. She kept us in his thrall. She taught us to lie and pretend to everyone that everything was okay. That we were safe.

She stayed with him for 36 years.

She, more than my father, more than anyone else in my life, she taught me how to lie.

And to add insult to injury, she does not remember. Claims she never knew. Has the audacity to react indignantly and say, “What kind of father would do this?”

What kind of mother allows a father to do this to her children?

What kind of mother then forgets? 

I tell you this truth.

If Hapa Papa or anyone (including myself) ever treated my children the way my father treated my brother and me, they would no longer exist in the realm of the living. I would have removed them.

In fact, the only reason I would allow them to live unharmed is because if I did end them, my children would be taken from me.

I am afraid to see my mother as human.

If she is human, then my father might be, also.

If he is human, then I might have to re-consider my decision to cut him out of my life.

If I have to re-consider my decision to cut him out of my life, I have to re-examine my childhood, his role in it, and then, my mother’s role in it, and then, I might have to encounter my anger again.

It is a vicious cycle.

Despite my mother never outright saying to my face that I’m just like my father, I know, to the core of my very being, that that is what she believes.

She does not have to say it.

It is all over her face. It is in how she responds to conflict with me – no matter how minor.

My brother and I can say the exact same thing to her and she will get mad at me but then turn around and do what my brother suggests.

It is a slap in my face. A constant reminder of how my mother really sees me.

If my mother believes I am my father, how can it not be true?

Dr. T suggested a few weeks ago that because I believe I am my father, this root belief makes it really hard to change my outward behavior with my children. That I have several deeply rooted beliefs that make it difficult to change because ultimately, my subconscious rejects all my attempts at a new identity.

She posits that part of the reason I refuse to see my father as human is because that way, I’m justified in continuing to reject him. (Note, she is not suggesting that I allow my father back into my life. Just that my reasons are manifold.)

Also, because I believe that I’m just like him, that I am literally cutting him off in an attempt to cut it out from myself and avoid the pain of this belief in my life.

But I am not my father – no matter what my mother says.

No matter what my brain says.

Because if I were my father, every time my mother pissed me off or said something I didn’t like, I would literally try to silence her by ending her life. I would try to smother her with a pillow or stick a butcher knife to her throat or wrap my hands around her throat and squeeze.

If I were my father, I would hit my children in the face, slapping their glasses clear across the room when they talked back at me. I would throw their plates in their faces or into their laps or on the floor when they refused to eat their dinner. I would spank them so hard over minor infractions that their bottoms would have welts and would require salves.

If I were my father, I would have Hapa Papa force my children to apologize to me for getting me so mad that I hurt them. I would have my children swallow all my abuse and then make them apologize to me for it. I would never apologize to my children or take steps to get better.

If I were my father, I would lie all the time just because I could. I would connive to make myself the victim in every situation and resent the success of my friends and family. I would do everything in my power to create the illusion of success and power and control.

If I were my father, I would have endless affairs and then when Hapa Papa finally demanded the truth, I would blame him for making me hurt him with the truth. I would blame everyone except myself. I would never take responsibility for anything in my life.

That my mother believes I would respond like my father wounds me.

I am deeply insulted.

I am furious.

I make light of it instead.

I am excellent at deflection.

When I first started seeing Dr. T, she mentioned that I avoid feelings and that I was not in touch with them at all.

I was so pissed off.

I discussed it with my friends and we all agreed that it was a ridiculous statement.

Of course I felt things. Of course I was in touch with them. I was a writer for fuck’s sake. I wrote about my feelings all the time! What the hell was Dr. T talking about?

Clearly, she had no idea what she was doing. Perhaps I should find a new therapist.

Now, years later, I finally realize what she has been saying all along, in multiple ways, as kindly as possible.

This last year or so, I have been considering stopping therapy. It takes a lot of time, costs a lot of money, and creates disruption for my children and for Hapa Papa.

But mostly, it was because I had fallen into a routine of just talking to Dr. T about my week and daily life and nothing seemed to be happening on the surface and I was better than when I started going to see her so maybe I could stop soon?

This fall, I cut back to every other week. And though at the beginning of this year, I mentioned I wanted to talk more about my anger with my mom as well as my relationship with Gamera, I still kept reverting to talking about my week.

Anytime the subject started scratching the surface of deeper feelings about my mother or my daughter, I would make a joke or change the subject and lalalalala until our session ended.

I didn’t even realize I was doing it.

It was deeply unsatisfying.

It is hard for me to see my children as human. (Truthfully, I have a hard time seeing anyone as human.)

I mean, obviously, they are humans, but I have an incredibly difficult time seeing them as human – with the full range of emotions accorded to humans.

It is especially difficult with Gamera because FFS she is SO EMOTIONAL all the fucking time. Just get it together already! (But don’t repress yourself!) BUT OMG FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY PLEASE STOP CRYING.

My mother has occasionally mentioned that I was a rebellious teenager. I would brush the statement off but recently, the thought of her saying this makes me incredibly angry.

She thought I was a rebellious teenager? Why? Because I didn’t agree with every single thing that came out of her mouth? Because we would have disagreements and fight?

I cannot even fully put into words how mad this makes me.

Our family was a wreck. She was rarely home. Neither was my father. And when they were, they fought and my father was violent.

We had all the risk factors for me and my brother turning out spectacularly badly.

I was a good kid. Didn’t do drugs. Wasn’t sexually promiscuous. Got excellent grades. Hung out with the “good” kids. Was a youth leader at church.

I was a textbook model child but because we argued and fought and I wanted to do things they didn’t want me to do, I was “rebellious.”

You know what?

My mother was lucky.

She was lucky that my brother and I turned out as well as we did. She was lucky that despite my parents’ inadequate parenting and terrible marriage, that we grew into reasonably well-adjusted adults with healthy marriages and families of our own.

She was so fucking lucky that I cannot adequately express my fury and disdain and disbelief that she believes I was rebellious as a teenager and that I am still the rebellious one.

I know I have mentioned this before but it bears repeating.

My father used to punish me for my perceived thoughts.

If he was being an asshole, or even just doing his job as a parent, and I was angry about it, even if I didn’t say it and just had 臉色 (lian3 se4) – a Chinese expression describing a mutinous face – he would say, “I know what you’re thinking and you’re wrong.”

I would get punished for things I didn’t say, or possibly, even think.

Last session, Dr. T mentioned that as a child, I was not allowed to be human.

I was not allowed to have or express a normal range of emotions. I was not allowed to be mad or cry or whatever else it was I was feeling. I wasn’t even allowed to have thoughts that were my own. I was only allowed to be what my parents expected and wanted.

And then it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

I was like, OMG I AM DOING THAT TO GAMERA!!

I started laughing because of course. It was hilarious. And ironic.

And then I stopped laughing because it was and is so fucking sad.

It is so hard for me to trust and acknowledge Gamera’s pain and emotions. I sucked it up so why can’t she?

And so, I do to Gamera the same thing that was done to me.

I am uncomfortable with emotions because I never really had the safety or the space to be human.

My parents didn’t model to me what it meant to be human. They did not teach me how to deal with the chaos they created – let alone the maelstrom of normal teenage emotions.

We were a family constructed of lies and denial. How could the honesty of feelings and emotions survive?

As an adult, I now deflect pain or discomfort by being funny or getting mad because they are easy and acceptable emotions for me to reach. They are my armor, protecting me so I rarely have to allow myself to feel pain or take my pain seriously.

Even in therapy, where I am paying $160 an hour to work through my shit, I deflect a lot of my grief and constantly make jokes, trivializing truly terrible things.

I want better for my children. For my precious Gamera.

She is not even six years old (although close enough). My job is to teach her how to be human and how to feel things even if they’re inconvenient.

Perhaps especially when they’re inconvenient.

And yes, to figure out how NOT to cry all the time but somehow not have her repress her emotions and hate herself and who she is and why she has these big emotions even though it seems overblown and ridiculous to me. And sometimes, to distract her out of a rut of screaming and crying.

But mostly, just to tolerate it and let her be. To resist the urge to shut her down and tell her to suck it up.

To let her live.

To be human.

To give her the gift of the fullness of her humanity even if it triggers every single button I have from a lifetime of self-protection.

Perhaps then, I can also give that same gift to my mother, to my father, and most importantly, to myself.

Thank you, friends, for giving me the space to be human.

Choosing To Be Content With Less

We decided to pass on the bigger home. Turns out, Hapa Papa doesn’t want to work until he dies. Slacker.

Although part of me is disappointed and had already envisioned our family in the bigger house, (especially my books in that glorious built in bookshelf!!), mostly, I feel relief. As awesome as the house sounded (and it was so awesome!!), in the end, it boiled down to what Hapa Papa wanted for our lives. He wanted flexibility to be with our family and to have the freedom of paying off the mortgage right around the time Cookie Monster heads to college. (Paying for 3-4 kids in college would also be difficult if we had a huge mortgage to consider as well.) He wanted to replicate what his father had: possibly fifteen or so years of his own time during retirement before passing. Plus, he didn’t want me to feel constrained with our budget.

I want what makes Hapa Papa happy.

Also, I definitely didn’t want to hear Hapa Papa blame me for this financial burden any time something cropped up. And he would blame me! Well, not necessarily blame, but he’d definitely mention it. A lot.

To this day, he still gives me crap about moving to NorCal without discussing it with him. He rightly alleges that if he hadn’t have followed me up north, we would’ve broken up. He’s totally right. But he did move up north so it all worked out in the end. (Never mind the fact that I didn’t take into account how he felt or thought about anything at all and just up and moved.)

And to be fair, I do agree with Hapa Papa. I just like to pin all the responsibility on him because now, I can get a bunch of stuff done to my current house due to misplaced guilt on Hapa Papa’s part. (He told me it was an excellent bluff strategy on my part. After considering an expensive house, all my remodeling requests sound really cheap.)

But as much as I joke about it, I am satisfied with staying put. After all, Hapa Papa is right. We would be trading our easy lifestyle for one that was considerably harder for what? A larger house? What is the point of working so hard (and in order to pay for the bigger house, Hapa Papa would have most likely had to get an even higher paying position which would require more in terms of time and effort) and never seeing the kids (or me)? Why would we choose to forgo swimming, martial arts, art, dance, and music classes for the kids just for more space?

Of course, this doesn’t preclude us moving to a bigger house in the future if our financial and family circumstances change. But for now, even though we could afford the house, ultimately, the trade-off wasn’t worth it for our family. Also, I think I get new hardwood floors and a custom built-in out of this experience (shhh… don’t tell Hapa Papa). So in the end, I still come out on top.

Many thanks goes out to our fantastic realtors, Brady and Erica Hobby of Hobby and Associates Real Estate Services. Their incredible knowledge, competence, and patience made this whirlwind palatable. I am only sorry that this is the second time I’ve engaged their service with no payoff for them. (The perils of me being impulsive and Hapa Papa being the sensible one of the family.)

And thanks to all of you, dear readers. Your comments and messages helped more than you know.

Why I Stayed

(Trigger Warning: Physical and emotional violence.)

I stayed because I was too young to leave. Because I didn’t want to cause my mother any more pain than she was already suffering. Because someone had to protect my younger brother. I stayed because I loved him. I still do. I stayed because he was my father.

It’s hard for me to classify my father’s behavior as abuse because hey, who doesn’t have a story about their parents beating them when they were younger? And shoot, we turned out fine, right? Wasn’t it just a different time? An Asian thing? A Christian thing?

But then, I look back on some of the things that happened and there really is no justification for what my father did to me.

I remember refusing to eat celery at dinner and my father just erupting into a rage, pushing my plate into my lap. I distinctly remember empty shrimp shells falling to the floor. I remember screaming at him and fleeing to my room, my father chasing after me. I locked the door to my room but he just kept slamming his body against the door that I was afraid he’d break down the door. I recall being more worried that the door would be broken. I was resigned to getting beaten and opened the door and scrambled into a corner of my room. My father grabbed the broken post of my four-poster bed and would have bludgeoned me repeatedly had my grandmother (his mother) not inserted herself between us. I remember being forced to apologize for making my father so angry.

Even thinking about this event over twenty years later, my stomach clenches, my heart races, my fingers tremble, and I want to huddle in a corner and weep.

This is why I recognize the defeated look on Cookie Monster’s face when I yell. It is like going back in time.

It’s hard to admit and really remember versus just reciting past infractions in a detached sort of nonchalance. It’s hard because who wants to be a victim? And maybe I was blowing it out of proportion? Maybe I was just super melodramatic and wanted attention? And if it was so bad, how come my mother didn’t know my father hit me when she wasn’t around (she maintains to this day that she didn’t – and I believe her, as incredulous as I still find it). How come my brother seemed to escape the worst of it?

I used to starve myself. Punch myself repeatedly in the stomach. Cut myself. Tear up my pictures. Destroy gifts my father gave me. I tried to slash my wrists but did it the wrong direction and too hesitantly. I tried to swallow a bunch of pills but was too afraid to die and of hell or purgatory or wherever it is that suicides allegedly go so I only took a few over the recommended daily dosage of Advil and then fearfully, prayerfully went to sleep.

I couldn’t even kill myself properly.

I still don’t understand why I would hurt myself as a way to say, “Fuck you” to my father. I’m not clear on how injuring myself would have done a damn thing to him, but that was my thinking at the time. I was only in junior high and high school.

But coping mechanisms are hard to shake. I starved myself when I was upset or did various forms of self-harm well into young adulthood.

And yet, despite living through what my father did to me, I still don’t understand why my mother stayed. My father smothered my mother with a pillow in some anonymous Chinese hotel until she almost blacked out. My father held a butcher knife to my mother’s throat while I called the police on a very memorable Father’s Day. Even when my mother finally was divorcing him last year, I feared for her safety.

But when I force myself to consider her situation, it makes a little more sense and I have more compassion. Likely, she stayed because she had two children. She had a mortgage. She grew up in a society that valued men over women, where violence against women was acceptable. She didn’t want her parents to be right (they didn’t approve the match). She was in a foreign country, away from all her family and support. She belonged to a church and a culture that considered divorce anathema and against God’s will. She was the age that I am now, afraid, alone, and so desperately sad.

I used to judge her so harshly. I still do, in my moments of frustration and anger.

The irony is that the main lesson I learned from my father was thus: Never be the victim. I refused to become like my mother, tread upon and used up by a horrible man. And so, I am become my father. (I hear this in my mother’s voice when we argue. I see it in her disappointment and despair. I hear this as a punishment in my depressed moments, when my brain only spews lies.)

But I fight the lies because I love my children. I fight my darkness so that my children will have less of this shit in their beautiful souls. I fight and fail but get back up because the same ferocity with which I used to protect myself and trammel over others in my selfishness has been transmuted to defend my children from my own worst moments.

I left my father three years ago around this time. My brother left a few months later. My mother finally left after that and the divorce finalized last March.

I don’t know how to end this post. It seems a bit artificial and contrived to take advantage of headlines and trending hashtags. I assure you, it is not. But since my last post, I have been thinking a lot and although I feel ill and trembly at the thought of pressing “Publish,” I also feel ill and trembly at the thought of not.

So, we’ll just leave it at that.