“To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom. She was born as Mom.”
– Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mom (2008)
I had an argument with mom last Tuesday.
Today is Tuesday. Which means that one week on, we’ve still not spoken a word to each other.
The argument wasn’t over anything major: owing to some construction-induced drilling next door, I semi-flipped shit and started ranting to her about how urban neighbourhoods in HK have no absolutely no respect for residential peace and that if I had the chance I’d move to some other place like Idaho or Iceland or any random island.
I didn’t mean it, of course (well, not really). But I said it to push her buttons anyway.
Because if there’s anything that pisses my mom off big time, it’s my mentioning of maybe leaving Hong Kong for the long haul. Even an off-handed comment about how the humidity in HK sucks would be enough to drive her up the wall, the result of which is usually a passive-aggressive non sequitur along the lines of “Well you go right ahead and move away then, Missus, if you think you’re so independent and shit” (Yes, “and shit” is faithful to Momma Chan’s usual register).
Sometimes, I wonder if mom gets so het up about my ‘imma leave HK’ remarks because she suspects I’m using them as leverage for more ‘freedom’, despite us living under the same roof. To be honest, I think her annoyance stems mostly from fear, the fear that one day, I would actually take the plunge and pack my bags and up and go.
I always feel bad after our arguments. And the worst thing is that I feel bad for feeling so bad, because feeling bad now probably means I could have prevented the argument in the first place, but didn’t.
This meta-guilt then sinks in to gnaw at my filial conscience, which becomes that ‘voice in my head’ telling me I’m in the wrong and ergo should apologise.
I find this very hard to do. In fact, it’s probably easier for me to say sorry to pretty much anyone but my mom. Ego is the first reason that comes to mind, but equally, I never see the need to ‘back down’, because I know that no matter how annoyed we get at each other, she and I will always eventually make up, bar none.
So, the real reason: because I know I can take her forgiveness for granted.
Empathising with other mothers (but not my own)
This is why the only marginally reassuring thing right now are those end-of-term meetings I’ve been having with my students’ parents, since they remind me that volcanic eruptions and cold wars happen in every family. I just think it’s hilariously ironic that my job is to side with the mom in these meetings, especially when I attempt empathy and say things like:
“I can’t believe your son/daughter hasn’t spoken to you for a week!” or
“Yes, teenagers nowadays can be incredibly difficult…” or
“No way – s/he said that to you?! I’ll have a word with the kid after our next class, rest assured.”
Lol. Little do they know. I might as well walk into the next parent meeting with ‘Hashtag Hypocrisy’ emblazoned across my forehead. Hi, I’m your kid’s teacher and he’s been having trouble trying to understand what ‘irony’ means. No worries though, our meeting today should change that.
Honestly, most of the time I just want to tell these flustered souls to take a chill pill, because kids will be kids and the ice – even glacier-sized ones – almost always thaws in time.
And hormones, of course. I’ve discovered that blaming everything on hormones has a weirdly pacifying effect on moms.
(The kid’s, I mean, although I’m guessing it does go both ways…)
Moving on from Dead White Males to Dominican and Korean Female Authors
In all seriousness, these meetings usually leave me feeling somewhat ungainly, because I think in every relationship between a mother and her child, there’s always more than meets the outsider’s eye. If anything, the non-Dead White Male authors I’ve read in the past few weeks have taught me that. Following from my previous post on being over-saturated with ‘Dead White Males’ (this sounds so wrong but ‘tevs), I decided to institute a 180-degree shift in my author preferences.
As such, having enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, I read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom (2008) in tandem, both of which feature very different mother-daughter relationships.
Where the two novels do intersect though, is in their obsession with the mother figure’s absence, and more specifically, with how this kind of absence affects a child’s later life when he/she grows into an adult.
“You’re a bitch”: Reading Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom
Short of being an ironic guilt trip, reading Please Look After Mom after my squabble with Momma Chan did, more or less, put me in the mother’s shoes, which is an odd and unsettling pair to step into. The book is pinwheeled with reminiscences of ‘Mom’, all of which are narrated from the daughter, the eldest brother, the husband and ‘Mom’s’ own viewpoints. The plot is centred on finding ‘Mom’, who has gone missing since she was last seen at the Seoul Subway Station.
There is no shortage of poignant moments in this book (my best friend, who lent it to me, warned of its tear-jerking potential), and there’s one scene that I remember most distinctly, which is when the daughter, Chi-hon, recounts to her father a conversation she had with ‘Mom’ over the phone – years before the latter went missing:
“Father… I think everyone’s forgotten about Mom. Nobody’s calling. Do you know why Mom had such a headache that day? It’s because I was a bitch. She said so.” Your daughter’s voice slurs.
“Your mom did?”
“Yes…I [told her not to] bring rice cakes for your birthday. So I said, Don’t, nobody eats those rice cakes anyway, and we just take them home in the freezer. I told her not to act like a country bumpkin, and that she should just go to Seoul without bringing anything. She asked me if I really stuck all the rice cakes in the freezer, so I said, Yes, I even have some that are three years old. And she cried. I asked, Mom, are you crying? And she said, you’re a bitch… I told her all that so things would be easier for her. When she called me a bitch, I think I went a little crazy… I was so angry that I yelled, Fine, I hope you’re happy that you have a bitch for a daughter! Okay, I’m a bitch! And hung up on her.”
Shin’s novel is distinct in its liberal use of the 2nd-person pronoun, which has the discomfiting effect of casting the reader in a position of guilt and submission, as the incriminating charge latent in the word “you” makes one feel like the accused in an imagined face-off.
But it’s ‘Mom’s’ insult – “you’re a bitch” – that really took me aback. It’s one thing to be called stupid or useless or a waste of space or (insert relevant character flaw that you probably inherited from the person calling you this), but ‘bitch’ is taking familial mudslinging to the next level.
I don’t think my mother, even in moments of extreme exasperation, has ever called me a “bitch”. I’m not sure what the Cantonese-equivalent to ‘bitch’ would be though, because calling someone a ‘female dog’ in Chinese isn’t really a thing.
Regardless, to me Chi-hon’s annoyance with ‘Mom’ is justified. After all, if no one is going to eat the rice cakes, then why bother carrying them all the way from their village to Seoul? Seems logical enough. Had I been Chi-hon, I would have made the same suggestion.
Over time, however, I came to realise that my reliance on ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ in my conversations with mom has actually yielded more conflicts than consensus, as I began to view every verbal interaction as a sparring contest, one in which my ‘reason’ had to prevail because ‘losing’ to her would somehow be a blight on my intelligence.
Problem is, in the process of ‘defending reason’, I often lose sight of the fact that too much reasoning blinds us to feeling, which in turn hurts the person on the receiving end. For me, this person usually happens to be my mother, who also happens to be the last person in the world I’d ever want to hurt.
For mom, this ‘pain’ recurs with every mention I make of wanting to leave home. Yet, knowing this, I would still occasionally come up with reasons as to why HK cramps my style and thus I’d be better off moving away etc etc etc. A lot of my comments are objectively valid (HK is humid and overcrowded, I do have the freedom to make my own life choices etc.), but had I given more thought to how she’d feel after hearing them, I probably wouldn’t have divulged as freely.
“The Emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgements, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites. We must arrange what we have to say about each of them under three heads.”
“Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.”
(Aristotle, Rhetoric, 4th century BC)
If Aristotle were alive, I reckon he’d agree that pathos, not logos, should be the ideal mode of rhetoric in any parent-child dialogue.
Unfortunately, Chi-hon doesn’t realise this until her ‘Mom’ disappears; I, on the other hand, have gradually come to realise this over time. Whether I am able to act on this realisation, however, is a different matter.
“Leave me alone”: Reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
On my more penitent days, I suspect if I’m not just one big spoiled baby, and that all the rationalising above on why I talk to mom in the (less than ideal) way I sometimes do is but sophistry pulled out of my ass to make myself feel less guilty. At least my mother is willing to entertain my whims and whines from time to time; some daughters don’t even have the luxury of being a bitch to their moms, mostly because they’re never around.
Jean Rhys portrays this type of de facto maternal absence in Wide Sargasso Sea, as we see through the protagonist’s eyes what it is like to have a mother who, eh, doesn’t really want to be your mother:
My mother usually walked up and down the glacis, a paved roofed-in terrace, which ran the length of the house and sloped upwards to a clump of bamboos. Standing by the bamboos she had a clear view to the sea, but anyone passing could stare at her. They started, sometimes they laughed. Long after the sound was far away and faint she kept her eyes shut and her hands clenched. A frown came between her black eyebrows, deep – it might have been cut with a knife. I hated this frown and once I touched her forehead trying to smooth it.
But she pushed me away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she had decided once and for all that I was useless to her. She wanted to sit with Pierre or walk where she pleased without being pestered, she wanted peace and quiet. I was old enough to look after myself. “Oh, let me alone,” she would say, “let me alone,” and after I knew that she talked aloud to herself I was a little afraid of her.
Before anyone writes the mom off as a matriarchal grouch – a bit of context: Up till this point, Annette Cosway, the mom portrayed here, has not had an easy ride in life. Being a widowed Creole woman who is neither ‘white’ nor ‘black’ enough for the English settlers or the Jamaican locals to accept her, she is the laughing stock of both servants and neighbours, branded a “white cockroach” who was only ever given perfunctory respect because of her late English husband’s social standing.
At the start of this vignette, Annette is cast in a posture of suffering, but it is a suffering that she must suppress lest her ‘weakness’ invites even more derision. Perhaps she is irritated by her daughter’s presence because she fears that Antoinette would grow up to receive the same treatment, and this fear inspires a kind of guilt which transpires into resentment, subconscious or otherwise.
From the reader’s vantage, then, her dismissal of Antoinette is understandable, even if not necessarily excusable.
But for Antoinette, who at this point in the narrative is still too young to grasp the external forces shaping her mother’s mood and state of mind, the brush-off – “let me alone” – comes across as a personal remark, one that brusquely declares her status as an unloved and unlovable daughter, at best an inconvenience to the tie between her mother and her brother Pierre; at worst a nuisance who is “useless” to the very person responsible for her existence.
Indeed, her existence is in itself an offence, and yet who can apologise for being born?
As we read on, we find out that Antoinette is actually Rochester’s ‘mad wife’ in Jane Eyre – Bertha Mason, but the Bertha in Wide Sargasso Sea is re-imagined, redeemed and made ’rounder’ by Rhys, who fills in the backstory of a ‘mad woman in the attic’ archetype to challenge and overwrite the 19th century association of wayward or forsaken females with hysteria and insanity.
Still, the implication of ‘like mother, like daughter’ (or rather, ‘mad mother, mad daughter’) resonates throughout the plot: By spelling out Annette Cosway’s neglect right from the start, Rhys suggests that this mom is largely responsible for her daughter’s descent into madness.
Having philosophised for 2000+ words on fictional mothers and daughters, I still can’t bring myself to say the 2 words that my own mother would most like to hear.
Or perhaps she’s heard them one too many times to believe that they actually mean something. Something that ensures her daughter isn’t just making a glib concession as band-aid diplomacy, and that she will not make hurtful or inconsiderate comments to her mother ever again.
But then again, how is ‘never again’ ever possible?
Being a mom must be so hard. I can only hope all moms find strength in their memories of being/once having been daughters.
It seems, then, that the greatest link between mothers and daughters isn’t physical (the umbilical cord) or biological (the blood tie), but historical and humanistic – of having experienced the same rite of daughterhood:
Some in the past, others in the present; all looking forward to the future.
*These two lines are taken from Joan Didion’s 2013 memoir Blue Nights – I am using them in this essay as section transitions