Dis.Honor | A Love Letter to My Mother
In second grade, I wrote an essay about my mother and won a school-wide contest. I can’t remember the full essay, but it was mostly about how historically, in Chinese culture, to be born a woman was to be second class — and to be a second child even worse — and my mother was both! And then there was me, the third daughter in a family of three girls, and how I wouldn’t even have existed if my grandparents hadn’t fled Communist China in 1949, with their 2 children, their firstborn son and my mother.
I remember three things:
- Even then, I’d heard from my mother countless times: “Don’t let anyone look down on you for being young and a woman.” (A foreshadowing of my experiences in corporate America)
- The prize for that contest was an African violet plant — a soft, velvety, purple succulent that my mother faithfully propagated year after year, searching for new species every year to our shared delight.
- I vaguely remember feeling like my mother was proud of me. But only in the vaguest way.
I get my ravenous love of knowledge and books from my mother. Her greatest life desire is to live next to a library. From my father, I get my empathy and people-orientation.
Growing up, my dad would proudly declare that my mom went to Tai Da, the “Harvard of Taiwan!” My mom would blush and self-deprecatingly say, “But I was not very good at history or geography” which is adorable and so very Asian, to eschew praise, and to focus on one failing to spite the remainder of the compliment.
I see in my oldest sister, Tanny, the gentle, creative artist that is also my mother, and I see in my middle sister, Tina, the fierce commitment to justice and generosity that you can trace back directly to our mother, who was always giving away gifts we’d received to someone else, just days after receiving them.
My mother didn’t have it easy. Sometimes, when she remarked on how talented and bright we were, she’d matter-of-factly tell us how her own birth was hard and that she was pulled out using forceps clamped around her forehead, likely incurring some brain damage.
When she was one, her mother — my grandmother — fled from China to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution, an arduous 7-day boat ride from China to Taiwan. On day 2, my grandmother’s milk dried out and on day 5, they ran out of water and food. My grandmother tells me that my mother never cried and she seemed to understand not to complain because my grandmother didn’t have anything to give her.
My grandmother gave birth to twins a year or so later, which meant my mother was the second out of four children, sandwiched between a dominant older brother and twin younger siblings who needed every bit of attention to survive near abject poverty in rural Taiwan.
Sometime before or after my mother’s third birthday, my grandparents couldn’t afford to feed them all, so my mother was given away to local villagers, who graciously took her in. When my mother and grandmother each retold this story separately to me, they both had the same wistful, regretful, pain-laden tone to their voice when they got to the punchline:
“When she came back, she didn’t recognize me.”
As an adult who studied secure attachment theory in undergraduate psychology, I feel like I understand my mother better through the lens of dual trauma: as a refugee of war and losing her mother at such a formative age, despite eventually regaining her.
No wonder my mother emphasized independence and fierce non-reliance on others my whole life. I wonder if her internal narrative is — or was — “I am alone. I was abandoned. I will always be alone.” No wonder she’s willing to sever relationships to preserve her own integrity: at the end of the day, she’s prepared to only have herself for companionship.
And yet, my mom went on to graduate from Tai Da with a degree in physical therapy, emigrated to America, completed her master’s in occupational therapy, and married my father. She both taught and educated children with disabilities, specializing in children on the autism spectrum, for over four decades, while raising the three of us girls.
A few years ago, in her late 60’s, my mother nonchalantly dropped in a conversation, “Well, you know I have Asperger’s” and then proceeded on as if this wasn’t the major bombshell that it was.
My sisters and I spoke after, and I forget which one of us said it:
“I always thought Mom just didn’t love us. It’s such a relief to know that she does — but that because of Asperger’s, it just doesn’t look like other moms.”
Sometimes — many times — my mother’s Asperger-ness gets her in trouble and puts her in hot water with co-workers, pastors, and family members. Often, her deep clarity and conviction and her clarion call of what is right and true is, frankly, offensive to strangers and loved ones alike. And yet, she doesn’t care because in her heart of hearts, telling people the truth is the most loving thing she can do.
In my teenage years and my twenties, I struggled with how dogmatic and inflexible my mother seemed and all the ways she wasn’t a “typical American mom”. In my thirties, I’ve grown to appreciate the tremendous grace it takes to live in her world, and how much she deeply, deeply loves the people around her, despite their often inability to understand her perspective. And the tremendous grit and resilience she has from surviving trauma and swimming against the tide her whole life.
We don’t always agree. In fact, as someone who embraces gray tones in a world that Asperger’s paints black and white, I often have to bite my tongue and search for the places where I can agree with her absolute statements, without feeling the need to caveat or nuance.
And yet. As an adult, I draw more and more inspiration from my mother’s tenacity, conviction, and her life of dissent. I want to speak as boldly and as unapologetically as she does, speaking truth to power and speaking up against injustice when I see it.
While writing this essay, I worried that this was a dishonoring thing to do, as Asian cultures prioritize “saving face” and rarely speak candidly of past trauma and pain. Yet, I’m writing and publishing this because the most faithful thing I can do to honor my mother’s fierce, costly independence is to unashamedly be my own person — as she is — even when that involves living my life by different cultural values from her own or disagreeing with her. Because I do. And I will.
My grandmother turned 99 on April 30th of this year.
My mother turns 73 in August.
I hope my mother lives to be 100 — and beyond — because I feel like I’m just discovering her.
And she is magnificent.
This is the first essay in a 4 part series, titled “Dis.Continuity | On Being Asian and American”, a series of personal reflections about the contradictions, tension, and inter-generational conflict from being bi-cultural. Each Sunday in May 2021, I’m posting a long form article, reflecting on my own grapplings with one of the classic Asian values, through the lens of my family relationships. And every Thursday at 5 PM EST in May 2021, I’ll jump on Clubhouse (@tteng) for “Tea Time with Tiffany” — mostly to hear your reflections and hold space for this conversation.
I hope you’ll follow along on Medium and join me.