Despicable Me

My thoughts are slippery, refusing to be pinned down. Every time I try to peer into myself head on, I catch my real feelings in my peripheral vision, already slinking back into the recesses of my secret, dark heart. When I still myself, a rising panic sits heavy in my chest; overwhelming.

I twitch.

It’s that feeling you get when you want to wail and gnash your teeth and weep but you are afraid to start. Or maybe, you do let some tears gasp out because they can no longer be contained, spillover water in a lock and key, but you don’t dare to really let it out. Even while sobbing into your hands in the nursery and your baby boy is toddling around, somewhat confused at what his mommy is doing, you don’t dare let yourself go.

What if you can’t stop? What if you cry yourself hollow? What if you cry so much that your insides are sucked out and then what are you going to do with yourself now that your insides are on the outside and your outside is stretched and gaping and loose and no longer tightly wrapped and ill-fitting and totally useless?

What are you going to do now if you are completely undone?

So you stop.

You stuff everything back into your too small chest and you wait it out. You breathe. You think of something else. You look at your baby boy and smile through the burning in your lungs. You check your phone. Facebook will rescue you. It always does.

That thick, dense boulder is no longer laying siege to your chest.

You get up and close the door.

There is a reason I keep dithering while writing this post. It’s been brewing in my psyche for months now, and coming to the forefront especially this past week.

It is an ugly thing to see your own sin laid bare.

Every so often, when we are discussing my father and my paternal grandmother, my mother mentions that my grandmother acted as if other people weren’t “people” (人家不是人). That in my grandmother’s eyes, only she and my father were “people” and everyone else was contemptible and stupid and worthy only of their disregard. And that is the reason my father never accepts responsibility for his actions, always blaming other people for “forcing” him to act in reprehensible ways. The reason why my father is always seething when other people, even his friends, succeed and surpass him. How could it be possible that people, who are so much stupider and less talented than he, have a better business/career/house/bank account/family when he is clearly far more deserving?

There is a Chinese phrase, “看不起 (kan bu qi)” which means “despise.” Literally, “can’t look upon.” Personally, I think the literal translation is far better at capturing its contempt and scorn.

“You have no idea how you sound, do you? The way you speak to me. To your mother. To your grand aunt. To my mother. To everybody. How you make everyone feel like they’re so unbelievably fucking stupid. Do you think so little of us that we can’t tell? That it isn’t obvious with every word out of your mouth? How dare you? How dare you?

I drown in shame.

When Cookie Monster was first starting to walk, he would often stumble and fall. I remember one of the first times he fell, I ran to his side and I hit the floor with my hand saying, “Bad floor! Bad floor!”

I froze.

A memory popped into my mind, crystal clear, of my grandmother doing the exact same thing when I was a child.

I never did that again.

This past week, a thought has been floating in and out of my mind. Occasionally, I catch a full glimpse of it before I banish it to the nether regions of my soul. Sometimes, I chase the thought down, trying to grasp it before it wisps out like smoke through my closing fist. Usually, I just change the song on the radio.

But it whispers back, sleek and seductive.

Other people aren’t ‘people’ to me until I hurt them.

The thought terrifies me. But it is not a surprise.

“Why are you being so mean to her? Can’t you try to imagine how she must be feeling? To meet you and Mom for the first time? As if meeting Mom weren’t intimidating enough, you’re being an asshole. Stop it. I care about her a lot. And if you’re going to be this way, I won’t want to come home anymore. So stop. Give her a chance. Be nice.”

Until that moment, I had only seen her as someone who wasn’t good enough for my brother (whatever that means and incidentally, is not true) and not as a person. Until my brother pulled me aside to rip me a new one, she wasn’t real. Only when I realized that I hurt her did I consider her a person in her own right.

This was not an isolated occurrence. To her or to other people.

Well here it is then. My not-so-secret confession: I believe that other people aren’t “people.” Only I am human. Only am a person.

At times, if I am feeling generous, I see my friends and family as extensions of myself so they are lent “person” status. Their injuries are my injuries. Their joys my joys.

But left to my default state, other people are obstacles. Roadblocks to getting what I want. If people aren’t interfering with my objectives, then I am easy going and pleasant. But as soon as we are in conflict, I suit up. And I play to win.

I get mine.

And then, if I hurt someone (as is inevitable), I am never quite sure if I feel bad because I hurt someone or because I don’t want to be seen as the type of person who hurts others.

You would think that I would at least consider my immediate family “people.” But alas, no. In true fact, I am worst to my family. After all, there are social consequences if I am a complete asshole to my friends and other people. That, at least, keeps me in check. Who, except those who have no choice, would put up with that shit from me?

It is hard to be my children. My husband. My mother. I am a hard person to be with.

I am a fucking two year old.

When I look back on my childhood memories, I have few of my mother. I’m not sure if it was because she wasn’t there, or if my father’s presence was so large, so looming, so hard, that he squeezed her out. I adored my father. His betrayal broke me. It isn’t until this past decade that I feel as if my mother has slowly, ever so slowly, emerged as a person in my mind.

The thought of this makes me weep.

I have no soft memories of my mother. No memories of her love, of her kindness. I mostly just see her, slightly out of focus, hovering in the background. Weak, unable to protect herself – let alone me. Steamrolled by my father.

You would think that now that I am a mother, I would be able to understand or empathize with my own mother better. That I would somehow grasp how my mother feels about me. How she must love me. I mean, if she loves me even a fraction of how I love my children, her love must be vast and unending. She has thirty-six years of loving me compared to my five of loving Cookie Monster. How much more must she love me.

And yet, when we fight, she is my enemy. I cannot fathom her coming at me from a place of love and concern. That she says things out of love and not as an attack.

I remember once, when I was particularly vicious, her pleading with me. Begging. Why did I think she was always attacking me? How could I even think that of her? That she only ever wanted to love me and would never dream of saying things to hurt me.

It is healing to watch her adore my children. Every now and then, it occurs to me that she must have loved me in the same way. Or at least, wanted to.

I don’t know. I can’t remember.

After witnessing years of my father crushing my mother, beating her down, I vowed to myself that I would never let anyone treat me this way. Ever.

And so, instead of turning into my mother, I am become my father.

My therapist says I do this because this was how I protected myself from my father when I was a child. That it is appropriate Hapa Papa says I “suit up” or “gear up for battle” (often with my children) because that’s what I am doing. I am putting on a suit of armor, this inability to see other people as human, in order to protect myself because no one protected me when I was small. And that this defense mechanism has worked for awhile, but now no longer fits. That I now see everyone as an enemy – even my children. That it is time to let some parts of this armor go.

I am terrified.

Jesus, have mercy.

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.