I have always been my father’s daughter: I have his facial features, his taste for expensive clothes, his bad temperament, and his inexplicable inability to relax.
“You need to change,” my mother has repeatedly told me, while wiping tears off my face after anxiety attack after anxiety attack. “Breathe,” she tells me.
Growing up, I could see the differences between us through the same lens as my father. We would reenact micro-versions of the same style of fight, and she’d always end it with the phrase “you’re just like your father,” -- and never in a nice way.
The two of them were both born in Taiwan, but met as mutual transplants in America. They got married after only a month or so of knowing each other, and for the past thirty years two strangers who probably shouldn’t have entered such a contract, have endured. Not without struggle, however. Not without having bear the pains of change and adaptation.
These are the lessons from my mother:
#1. Don't be Female.
In Chinese, your last name precedes your first. Every time you announce your self or write your name, you're carried by the name of your father. Who, naturally, was somebody's son, once. Like in many other cultures, the Chinese favor patriarchy and it starts with the cradle. My grandmother wanted a son more than anything, and for that reason bore seven daughters (one stillborn, one given away at birth, several neglected) before she had her beloved son. My mother was even given a male's name, like other sisters, to encourage Y chromosome during the next birth.
I wasn’t thrown out with the bathwater, but illusion of equality in the land of the free was quickly dissipated by the harsh realities of being female in modern society: being subject to cat-calls, fear of walking alone at night, judgements for what I wear, etc. My mother knew from birth that being female somehow made you lesser in the eyes of most, and that being a male offers you certain privileges that being female does not.
#2. Study Hard.
My mother, born in the year of the Tiger, embodied the "Tiger Mom" approach. My sister and I were scolded for anything below 100 -- anything that wasn't perfect wasn't enough.
She herself was a dancer as a child, and dreamt of being a ballerina or joining the Chinese Opera schools. My grandmother yelled at her for not doing well in school, with the same level of severity (or worse, I'd imagine) as she used with me and my sister. I imagine a lot of her determination to get us to succeed is driven by her own failures as a student.
#3. Survive or Perish
When my mother moved to America, she first lived with her oldest sister in San Luis Obispo. She flew into San Francisco and took the greyhound out to a ranch her sister had rented, and stayed there for three months. Her first meal was a hot dog -- "I wanted a hot dog because that's what everyone ate in the American movies we saw. It was kind of terrible - well, not bad, just... I thought, okay, this is a hot dog,".
Since there wasn't much other than 5 & 10 stores around, my mother's second eldest sister invited her to join her in New York City. Without her parents or any other contacts, off she went again, alone on a plane.
In an era where the economy is tanked and many of my brilliant, intelligent friends (with ivy-league degrees, no less) are struggling to find jobs, survival is still very much a question that comes into play. My mother came to America as a teenager without any language skills, to the land of opportunity and of dreams, and struggled to survive, for a better life for herself, and for her children. Me.
Now, here I am sitting on my MacBook Pro, wondering how best I want to survive on my own. I think about her sacrifices, and grimace at the thought of how I am practically coasting when she couldn't.
#4. Don't Marry For Love.
My parents were never madly in love. My mother had been searching for a boyfriend because that is what was expected of her: to marry and to have children. She was in her thirties and when she met my father, they decided to get married because the timing seemed right. Even if they had been in love, a few months was not enough time to get to know each other. Their fights, constant and cyclical, were never-ending because they fundamentally differed on how to live life - on how to be happy. "If you have somebody with the same values and approach to life, marriage is great. If not, then it is extremely painful. Don't get married because you think you're in love or that you're supposed to," she tells me again and again.
#5. Always Adapt.
"You have to change," my mother tells me, like she always has. This isn't anything new. But last week, she added something I haven't heard before "I had to change, too. I used to be brash, I used to speak my mind openly, without thinking about how it would effect other people. It's not easy. But sometimes, you have to learn how to be happy,"
These are the lessons I'll take from my mother: there are major downfalls to being female, but that's life. She loved her mother all the same, in spite of her favoritism. It's important to study - or at least, work diligently at something in life. If you can do that, then you have everything you need to survive on your own, paired with the knowledge that sometimes you have to do what you have to. Sometimes it's better to swallow your pride and do what you must to survive. And don't marry for the sake of marrying, and if you do, make sure that the person you're committing to wants to live the same lifestyle as you do.
But even then, always be prepared to adapt, and always be prepared for change. As life inevitably does.