BY VANESSA WANG
My mother is not an easy woman. The same people who call her caring and intelligent would say she is bossy, contentious, and a pain in the ass in the same breath. Growing up in Taipei in the 1990s, in a society where the right answer to "any questions?" is silence, and the right color to wear is whatever everyone else is wearing, I felt embarrassed of such a mother who stood up at PTA meetings and voiced her displeasure of the class schedule, the school board, the content of our textbooks—anything at all.
She threw her credentials in everyone’s faces: she was an educator, a Doctor of Philosophy, an academic elite—title upon title that forced people to listen to her, take her seriously. When they didn’t, she locked her brows, crossed her arms, argued, and more than once wrote to the Ministry of Education.
Why can’t you be more agreeable like the other mothers? Why draw so much attention to yourself? I asked. Really, what I was asking was, why are you putting me in the spotlight?
More than anything, I yearned to blend in; to me, to blend in meant to belong. Before moving to Taiwan, I spent the first eight years of my life in Puerto Rico, where my Taiwanese family drew curious looks just by existing. Wherever we went, we stood out, for we were usually the only yellow-skinned people in a restaurant, a mall, a school.
People stared when we waited in line at K-Mart, and giggled when they heard us speaking in Mandarin. They wondered out loud where we were from, as if we couldn’t understand what they were saying. Were we Japanese? Korean? They pulled at the corner of their eyes to mock our appearances. Whenever this happened, my mother spoke even louder, drowning out the voices of spectators with her own, emboldened by the looks of befuddlement as she spoke faster and faster in her mother tongue. I, on the other hand, wanted to crawl under a table, to melt into a wall, to disappear.
My mother chose an unconventional path in marriage. Having set up her life with my father in Puerto Rico, she decided, when I was eight, to move back to her home country in Taiwan, taking my brother and I with her. This way, my father could continue his business in Puerto Rico, and she could pursue her academic ambitions half-a-world away.
On tax forms my parents were married, and two or three months out of the year, when we flew those 9,500 miles to gap the distance, the four of us were actually a family. Most of the time though, my mother raised us alone, and I witnessed the hardships of a woman trying to do everything herself. How small and helpless she seemed when she took her car to the body shop, changed light bulbs, and trapped mice under the kitchen sink, doing things that at my friends’ houses, were "dad jobs."
In a society where most women never learn how to drive, let alone enter an auto repair garage bringing only her daughter with her, I saw the looks of pity and bemusement in the mechanic’s eyes, and wanted to run away. My mother, being who she was, bargained animatedly, and pushed to have her car ready three days prior the estimated pick-up date.
Afterwards, when the shop overcharged her, my mother cited receipts as evidence and threatened to sue the mechanic till he threw his hands in the air. Yes, she was capable. Yes, she was resourceful. Yes, she was the superwoman who could do it all—how could I not admire such a mother? However, what I saw was not the glory of her success but the aftermath of her omnipotence: she never had enough time, her to-do list grew by the second, and her frustration manifested in bouts of anger and snappy criticism toward those closest to her.
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The price of being an accomplished, strong woman was to be unhappy, or so it seemed to me. Most of all, I could not erase the mechanic’s looks of pity from my mind. The look was there even as my mother quarreled eloquently with him over his rip-off. It was a look that said "crazy bitch" and "poor woman, why isn’t your husband doing this for you?" at the same time. Under his gaze, I felt shame: shame that my mother was this fuming woman trying to be a man, shame that I came from this deprived family in which to survive, my mother had to resort to such vulgarity.
Perhaps because of my confused feelings toward my mother, I considered "feminism" a dirty word. To me, feminism was a naïve and dumb crusade to protest an unleveled playing field where men always had the ball. It was naïve, because what could you do about it? It was dumb, because by protesting, one was giving up what women did have: the privilege to sit on the bench and enjoy the shade. My mother was always sweating and shouting, when really all she had to do was sit down and smile. I thought my mother had it all wrong, so I listened when our high school home economics teacher told us the importance of remaining sexually chaste before marriage.
"Men won’t admit it, but they still prefer marrying virgins," the soft-spoken, motherly woman told us in class. Her words sounded like common sense and reality—an "it is what it is, and we might as well make the best of the situation" sort of wisdom, and were more effective in scaring me into abstinence than any abortion movie or STD pamphlet. It did not occur to me to consider what I wanted for my body; I was too paralyzed with fear that with one small misstep, I would become forever undesirable to men, and therefore doomed to do everything myself.
I was heading off for Tokyo, for my year of study abroad. My two large suitcases were packed, filled to the brim with cookbooks, a slow cooker, Japanese language guides, and all the anxiety and excitement of living away from home for the first time, and in a foreign country, nonetheless. I asked my boyfriend if he would take me to the airport. He said he had classes; the only way he could take me to the airport and get to his classes on time was if he drove, and he wasn’t sure if his father would lend him his car. I said it was fine, that I would take the bus on my own, but two days before my flight, I changed my plane tickets so that I could depart later in the day, at a time that worked for my boyfriend.
"Why did you change your tickets?" my mother demanded.
I shrugged without meeting her eyes. "More time to get ready. I wouldn’t have to wake up so early."
My mother called my bluff. "Why are you bending yourself backwards to meet someone else’s needs? Why doesn’t he make more of an effort?"
"It’s not a big deal!" I shouted. "Why do you always make such a big deal out of nothing?"
My mother was furious; she embarked on a nightlong analysis of everything I was doing wrong in my life, as she often did. Halfway into her thesis, however, her anger turned to tears. It was a big deal, she said, her voice cracking, because by changing my tickets to later in the day, I would arrive at Tokyo close to midnight, and would be forced to find my way around a foreign country carrying two large suitcases in the dark, on my own.
It was a big deal, because I was twisting myself to fit into the contour of the world around me, even if it meant bending myself so far I was hurting myself, as if all I deserved was the leftover nook of whatever people threw at me. I would make myself small and try to crawl into that space, and I would crawl with my head down, with my arms tucked by my sides, worried about accidentally poking someone with my elbows.
When I passed over a job application because I didn’t meet the qualifications in the ad, my mother told me to apply anyway. What did I have to lose? When someone offered me a tutoring gig at a rate I considered good enough, my mother urged me to negotiate for more. "The more they pay you, the more valuable you’d be in their eyes."
When a crush finally called me, asking me if I was available in two hours' time, my mother told me to turn him down. "If he really wanted to go out with you, he should have asked two weeks ago." I complained that I’d never find a man this way, by being so difficult. But my mother knew better: my time was worth more; my knowledge was worth more; I was worth so, so much more.
I live in the United States now, a 31-year-old woman. Every day I see smart, kind, beautiful people, myself included, striving to fit into what is considered the cultural norm, the dominant norm. We make ourselves small, bending our bodies and souls into the acceptable shape and size so as not to disturb the established order around us, hoping no one will notice our existence, feeling we do not deserve to be here at all.
The air is murky with guilt and heavy with apologies. Sorry for speaking with an accent. Sorry for being the only woman in the room. Sorry for needing a day off to practice my religion and belief. You see it in the woman fearful of asking for maternal leave, and so she comes back long before her body has recovered. You see it in the employee afraid of asking for a raise because he also needs the company to issue him a Green Card, so he soldiers on as others receive promotions and recognition.
There are days when I feel my very existence is a burden, when I feel that my every want and need are things I need to apologize for. It doesn’t matter where I move to, or how long I’ve lived in that place. The world can always find some fault with me if I let it; if it’s not my skin tone or nationality offending others, it could be my gender or religion. It could be that I have the wrong personality.
With all that guilt riding on my shoulders, how could I ask for more, how could I even think about voicing my opinion or disagreeing with others? In American movies, Asian actors almost always play quiet, submissive, cooperative characters, the model minority. At work, I see fiction and reality aligned; those who rarely speak up at meetings are indeed the minority skin colors and gender in the room. As I watch my own fear of conflict mirrored in those who look most like me in this country, I wonder if this non-confrontational personality is truly our innate color, or a camouflage for survival. I remember how embarrassed I felt about my mother speaking up at PTA meetings in Taiwan, and decide it is the same thing. The instinct to stay silent and unnoticed stems from the same insecurity of being different, of being the odd one out, whether it’s being the only protesting woman in a society that favors collectivism, or being the only woman of color in a room of white men.
One of my all-time favorite movies is Disney’s Little Mermaid. In many ways, I identify with this mermaid who tries so hard to assimilate into the human world, this new, unfamiliar place. I feel bad for Ariel when she makes the mistake of combing her hair with a fork at the palace dinner table, and I recognize all too well her look of apology when she bites her lips and looks down her lap.
All she sees is the things she’s doing wrong—no wonder she’s lost her voice! And how sad for her that her one salvation is exactly what she cannot do: speak up for herself. Again and again I watch Ariel and Erik row a boat on the lagoon, and I can’t stop thinking, if only she could just tell him who she is! If only she could scream, at the top of her lungs, "It’s me, the girl of your dreams! Now kiss me and break the spell!" But she can’t, and she loses her chance at grasping her heart’s desire.
There are days, good days, when I feel empowered, days I feel I must speak up, deserve to speak up. These are the days I fight my landlord over a loud water pipe, marching to her office five times a day and sending her a letter swarming with legal terms. These are the days I proudly tell my boss all the reasons I merit a raise. On these days I think about my mother, a woman who has always gone against the grain, a woman who immigrated to America, leaving everything she ever knew behind, and then after establishing a life here, once again move back to Taiwan to start over her life from zero.
Over the years I’ve come to know my mother better. I’ve learned that she wasn’t always as confident as she appeared to be. She was scared when she first moved to America, scared even to ask for a cup of water at a restaurant, in a language she hardly knew. I’ve learned she wasn’t always so independent and fierce. She once dreamed about going through her entire life as a helpless, timid woman, with always a knight in shining armor to save her at every corner. She became brave because she wanted to protect those she loved: her brother and sister, her mother, my brother and I. She found her voice, because while she could make do without that cup of water, she could not see her family go thirsty.
Nowadays, I’m glad for a mother who is different. A mother who won’t shut up, won’t calm down, won’t give in. A mother who can be a pain in the ass when she wants to. Every day I still struggle to find my voice, to raise my hand, to lean in, and in my most difficult moments, I remember my mother’s words and example that I have to reach for every opportunity, fight for what I want, speak up when my rights are taken from me. I’m my mother’s daughter, so I need never feel sorry for wanting more, needing more. I’m my mother’s daughter, so I will square my shoulders, lift up my chin, and argue.
Vanessa Wang is an MFA graduate from the University of Maryland writing program. Currently, she lives in the Silicon Valley. Her writing has appeared in Kweli Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Quail Bell, and has won first place in the Bethesda Short Story Contest.