My Mother’s Life
The first time after I read Raymond Carver's My Father's Life, I called my mother immediately. I waited for the dial tone to be replaced by the familiar "hello, baby" from my mother's young voice, always bright with a sharp rise in intonation on the last syllable, almost like a question, as if she is genuinely curious and fascinated by anything and everything you have to say.
"Welcome to the O2 messaging service..."
She called me back in the next half an hour and apologised for missing my call.
"Is everything okay baby?" I used to hate it when she called me baby, but she is inexplicably amused by the idea of embarrassing her only child even when there isn't an audience.
"Just thought I'd check in on you." I said. "Were you busy?"
The answer of course was yes. My mother is always busy.
After its sovereignty was handed back to China in 1997, Hong Kong fell into a state of panic. The Handover was not as promised, the glorious coming-home of China's prodigal son; financial crisis leading to a global economic collapse, followed by an unprecedented rise in unemployment rates and a trend in migration. Citizens flocked to escape the clumsy efforts of a disoriented government. Those who stayed behind were trapped in the city's infamous smog, choking on the pollution and desperation that shrouded any signs of hope in this premature Millennium Armageddon.
Amidst the chaos, my parents decided to separate. To a four-year-old, that banal divorce was the real end of the world. At the time, divorce was such an uncommon concept under our conservative Chinese society that I almost felt ashamed to watch it tumble out of my mother's lips. None of my friends had divorced parents and the rest of my family refused to speak of it. Everything I've ever known was collapsing around me and I didn't even know if someone would be there to pick me up from school the next day. I was marooned with the little island of Hong Kong.
I have very little memory of what triggered the divorce but I am aware, in the way that one is aware of what causes pneumonia, that it had begun with my father's affair with another woman. Though my father was the obvious culprit of the divorce and received his share of pointed fingers, my mother was the one who suffered from most of the blame. My mother is, after all, a woman.
My mother was a woman of free spirits and domesticity bored her. She came from a modest family as the only daughter with three brothers, growing up in the dark ages of Mao's Cultural Revolution. Her father is a distant relative to a princess of the Qing Dynasty and well educated, which made him an obvious target to neighbours and friends, who sought to physically abuse and humiliate any Intellectuals on unspoken yet mandatory orders. As a result, he was forced into hiding and shortly after the revolution, he left China to pursue a new life in Hong Kong. Trapped in brutality and ignorance for most of her childhood, my mother was eager to escape the life of prejudice and was optimistic about the possibilities that this mysterious city could offer her. But she was the daughter.
Her father took her two younger brothers and left her with her mother and older brother in rural China. She didn't understand; her father adored her. He taught her to read and write, snuck her sweets that he stole from work and smiled that big smile that showed too much of his gums whenever he received her school reports—things that he never did for any of her brothers. She was certain that out of his four children, he loved her the most. Yet he was leaving her behind with nothing, not even an apology.
Before he left, he asked her to take care of her mother, to be a good daughter and do what the other daughters do. She tried, she really did, but it was not in her nature to be content or happy with the mundane domesticity that every Chinese female was subjected to. My mother wanted more.
Years later, her father eventually sent for her and the rest of the family. She embraced this new chapter of life with determination and gusto. Hong Kong, much like her, was a promising new-born, raw and innocent, buzzing with opportunities and moving into an era of prosperity. As soon as she graduated from high school her hard work was rewarded with a reputable job and an immediate elevated status that distinguished her from her peers. She was smart, beautiful and young. This was only the beginning, her prospects were bright and her potential limitless. She could've done whatever she wanted to.
This was when she met my father.
My father had a relatively easy childhood in Hong Kong with his scholarly and wealthy family, who missed the terrors of the revolution in its entirety. The youngest sibling to five academics, his burden and ambition matched my mother's, and I wondered whether it was that mutual understanding that sparked and fuelled their love.
As children do, I'd spent a long time wondering why or how my parents fell in love. From what I can remember, they had absolutely nothing in common. My father was an indoor person who enjoyed computer-gaming and reading, with an extensive collection of books so vast that my childhood home was essentially a library. On the other hand, my mother's interests lay outdoors. I often call her a beagle, for she could not stay indoors for more than a day before needing to stretch her legs and refill her lungs outside. The middle ground they found was indoor sports, a hobby that they could both agree on, their favourite being squash and swimming. On our family Sundays, despite my lack of interest in sports, I was dragged along to learn both activities. The coordination of my limbs were so bad that they grudgingly gave up on squash and focussed their attention on teaching me how to swim. Their lessons were a complete failure (to this day, I still can't swim), but it is one of the rare memories of my parents that I relish.
My father's initial method was rather crude. His brothers had taught him how to swim by throwing him in a deep lake and he suggested the same for me, stressing that survival instincts are best initiated at a young age. I eagerly reminded him that should I drown, the nearby lifeguard would save me, interrupting the process of my learning and rendering his efforts useless. Either way, his invitations to go swimming did not move me. In the end, my mother bribed me with two adorable Hello Kitty armbands that kept me afloat and promised that if either of them threw me in the water, the lifeguards would ban them from the pool forever. So I agreed—my parents liked swimming too much to risk having it taken away.
My first lesson was to learn how to hold my breath and to open my eyes underwater. As a game/test, my parents dove with me and made faces at me. Once our heads were back above the water, I would imitate the facial expression that I saw. One of them was a kiss, like a scene from a movie that I'd yet to see. The air bubbles from their lips flittered up like crystal confetti and I could almost hear Unchained Melody in my ear. When they came back up, my mother was in fits. She was choking and kept slapping the water instead of my father who was skilfully avoiding her attacks and fixing the wet hair that was eating her face, all the while wearing a poorly-hidden grin. That is probably the best memory I have.
Their marriage started at a young and fiery age, a union that neither family had initially approved of. My mother's father believed that she deserved better than a pretentious academic and his superficial family who, in his words, "were so poor that they had nothing but money". My father's mother, a widow who lived alone, disdained my mother's family as unworthy rabble whose social status was maintained by their only daughter, a woman. My eldest uncle had remained in China with his wife and lived as a businessman, which translated in the eyes of my father's mother as "fast-money".
"She said that only illiterate people start businesses—they're too lazy or incompetent to work for an employer," my mother once recalled. "And she wasn't exactly wrong. My brother never went to school. He starting working as soon as he could, to keep the roof over our heads when our father was away in Hong Kong." Her two younger brothers had the luxury of growing up in Hong Kong with a good education, but neither had an occupation that was considered respectable. They had modest jobs—one was an electrician, the other a chef.
I suppose I understand. Even to this day, grab a handful of children in Hong Kong and ask them about the field of career they wish to enter. They will give you three standard answers: medicine, law, or something to do with money. My mother worked in finance; I was supposed to be a lawyer.
Ultimately, they eloped and a year later when it became clear that the marriage was set in stone, both families had no choice but to make it official with a ceremony. My parents' obstinacy prevailed. But even as newly-weds, my parents' ambitions did not falter and they continued to be engaged by their separate projects.
My father advanced his postgraduate studies in England while my mother stayed in Hong Kong for her work. The marriage struggled for a year or so, where the only forms of communication between my parents were through letters and the occasional long-distance phone calls that they could not afford. Eventually, when the stress of being apart grew so big that it was distracting their individual commitments, my mother, the wife, reluctantly followed my father abroad and started a university degree of her own. She reasoned that it was going to be another way of achieving, being the only person in the family to go to university. For the daughter to graduate from higher education—imagine! And to do it abroad, following the footsteps of her favourite poet Xu Zhimo!
My ancestors argued that marriage is the biggest accomplishment that a woman can have. It would give me great pleasure to say that it's an outdated and irrelevant notion, but sadly, it is not. Though the bounds are much weaker today than the ones in my mother's time, I myself, along with the rest of my generation, are still limited and criticised by the social conventions of the traditional Chinese culture, just as my mother was. Supposedly, once you have acquired whatever is needed for you to get a husband, be it an education, an appropriate job or even plastic surgery, women are expected to marry in order to proceed in life. If not, you're stuck. There is simply nothing left for you to do if you don't get married. Any further advancement in your career would be futile, if not downright meaningless when you don't have a husband. People would only fixate on the fact that your success probably came at the expense of a marriage and reproach you for trying to break conventions.
After you get married, the fun begins. At this stage, the wife should quit her job and become a housewife. Maintaining the family would be the priority for women like my mother and some would even go as far as claiming that that is their best chance of happiness. My mother deserved more. She was determined to prove them wrong and show everyone that she could get so much more from this life than prosaic chores. Like I said, domesticity suited her ill.
Then she got pregnant.
I was born on 8 March, 1993 at St James' Hospital, Leeds at 6:33 pm. The birth of me was not particularly welcomed; I was a rude interruption to my parents' studies, small and ugly from malnutrition and premature labour and above all things, a daughter. My mother always wears this complicated smile whenever she speaks of my birth. "Your grandfather was the only person who wanted to hold you."
It took a while for me to understand that she wanted more for me, that the circumstances in which I had arrived in this world was not ideal. It's not the case that I wasn't loved, it was just a difficult time for them to love me.
Submitting to the social pressure, she put her other aspirations and projects on hold to be a mother to me. Giving up her degree, she returned to Hong Kong with the baby, leaving her husband to finish the last year of his PhD alone in England. With her feet back on familiar grounds, she began building her life once more.
The prejudice against working mothers was a lot stronger than the judgment given to working wives but she was certain that she could surpass all that, just as she had done before. It was another uphill battle, something she'd been charging towards her whole life, and it was the only one she ever lost.
The role of a mother had implications and responsibilities that were a burden too heavy even for her. My father decided that she was not the wife he had envisioned. He had expected her to change and comply like everyone else, and when she remained stubbornly loyal to her beliefs he found another woman. The divorce was complicated and it went on hiatus when she became ill.
It was the first time I felt fear in such intensity, a deep churning in my veins from the anticipation for something that I both knew and didn't know. My mother had failed to pick me up from kindergarten one evening and the teachers' faces were painted with various shades of distress. Although she was notoriously and frequently unpunctual, it was well over half an hour since the school was supposed to close. After what seemed like forever, my grandfather came to collect me. I did not see my mother for a week after that and instead of answers, all I got from the adults were big bear hugs and a litany of empty reassurances.
I still have no knowledge of what actually happened to her. I have never once asked for the details of her illness, but I do have vivid images of her, lifeless and pale with no colour but her blood-shot eyes, her body frail and ghastly, sinking into the hospital bed, her lips opening to release no words but a tiny breath, a scream that I cannot hear; that was enough.
With time, she got better and my father, having faced a life and death situation and gotten all the epiphanies that one gets in those kinds of moments, decided to give the marriage another go. My mother had a change of career at this point, compromising for her marriage and child, and settled for a job that would offer her more time to focus on her domestic life. She opened a restaurant with her youngest brother, the chef, and finally found a manageable balance between her passion and her family.
The end of the world was apparently cancelled as we stepped into the millennium, but mine was merely postponed. In 2002, my father found yet another woman and my mother had too much pride to accept such unfair terms in her marriage and finally got the divorce.
After the divorce, she migrated back to England, to the place where her daughter was born, and began her new life with yet another fresh start, with no friends, no job and this time, no father or husband to help her. She took no sympathy, no alimony, and like Xu Zhimo, not a single cloud.
Somehow she managed, piecing her life together from the bottom up. My mother started at a shared flat with an acquaintance where there was only one room and one double bed for both of us and got a job working at the till at a Chinese takeaway. She moved on to make enough friends and connections to open her own takeaway and bought a laptop that I could use for my homework. The flat turned into a terrace house, the takeaway into a restaurant, and by the time I was seventeen we were living in a three-bedroomed semi-detached house with a car and a stable income. All within ten years.
Unfortunately, it seemed that our ancestors were right on some things; a woman would have to make sacrifices to keep her intellect and ambitions. It pains me to say that her hard work in creating a new life for us had taken a toll on our relationship. Without going into details, I'll note here that I wasn't fond of my mother when I was young. My adolescence was graffitied with unwanted piano lessons, unrealistic academic expectations and a forced part-time job at the restaurant. I am, after all, my mother's daughter. Compliance is not in my genes, and in my more extreme and rebellious days, I ran away from home. Twice in total.
The second time I ran away was the day our relationship hit rock bottom, the day of my A-Level results. That morning, I walked home from school, holding the morbid letters "ABC" in excruciating black against the flimsy white paper and handed it over to her as I got it. She smiled at first, that complicated smile, but nothing came out of it. No words seemed to find their way to her, so I left her to ponder and closed the door to my room. I called the university, as everyone else had advised, but the call only sealed my fate; I had missed the requirements to enter the university of my first choice, and must take the insurance. Outside my room, my mother was no doubt still staring at the piece of paper and I tried my best to gather whatever bits of me I could find before I faced her.
The door opened before I turned the knob and my mother's face was mere inches from mine.
"Is there nothing else you could do?"
I almost broke down in tears again, for her words were not comforting, but blaming, and her voice no longer excited for whatever it was that I had to say. I had failed to prove myself, to convince my mother that the ugly baby was worth it after all, despite the hardship that came with her. I honestly believed that I had given my mother a legitimate reason not to love me.
I ran away that night and went home a day later. The house was empty when I returned and I found out that she ran away from the house too, taking a short trip to London, and came home a day after me.
Things stayed bad for a while and it didn't look like it was going to get better any time soon; I was going to leave for university in September. We moved to our current home a few weeks before I left for Nottingham. Most of the packing was done by me since my mother was, as she always was, busy. She had this beautifully old dressing table that was decorated with golden roses and silver leaves. I once borrowed a necklace that was inside the top drawer and my mother flipped when she walked in on me. She relaxed when she realised that I only opened the top one, but nevertheless warned me to never touch it again. When there was nothing left to pack, I pulled out the forbidden drawers. The bottom one slid out clumsily, as if by design, and revealed three large, brown paper bags. Two of them had "baby" scrawled in my mother's awful handwriting and the other one, with visibly more wear and tear, was left unmarked.
I didn't hesitate to open the bags, starting with the one with no label. There were about thirty letters, all neatly kept in their respective envelopes, all addressed to my mother. I had a fair idea of what they were before I opened them; they were the written correspondence between my parents back when they were managing their marriage on two different continents. The one I read, the only one I dared to read, was a long letter of apology from my father, expressing his remorse for missing my mother's phone call the previous week. Having no knowledge of the context, I could only assume that he had a lousy excuse for his mistake and so the main body of the frayed letter was mostly a sincere plead for her forgiveness and his longing to hear from her. Please pick up the phone, he wrote. I miss you and I want to hear your happy voice again. On the last page was a poem and a simple sketch, signed October 1990, the month of my mother's 22nd birthday.
His words were blunt and awkward, but endearingly so. He was so in love with her that I almost forgave him. I hadn't realised how much my parents had loved each other. The marriage ended so badly that I have not seen my father in over a decade and those letters reignited a thought that had troubled me in my darker moments—my birth ruined their marriage. Had I been born a little later, at a more appropriate time, maybe the burden of a baby wouldn't have strained their marriage so much, and they would still be together. I took her youth, her aspirations and the love of her life from her. Silly thought, I know.
I opened the two remaining bags, much bulkier than the other one, to find a series of childish drawings, hand-crafted cards and letters. It was a collection of the gifts that I had given to her over the years on birthdays, Christmases, and Mother's Days.
It was on that fading carpet, surrounded by my childhood memories when it occurred to me that my mother gave up her life-long battle with domesticity and eased into motherhood all those years ago. Throughout my adolescence, I had spent a great deal of time doing various things, but I had never laid a finger on house chores. My mother said that the monotonous were not for me; youth should be spent on the exhilarating. I had recognised only the superficial and overlooked the significant, because in actuality, I was a spoilt and reckless child, abusing the freedom given to me, while my mother was the real hero. She became both father and mother, taking on the roles of man and woman, dominating work and domesticity.
I never told her what I had discovered, but after that day, I started telling my mother that I love her, and her terms of endearment became much more believable.
Entering my sixth year of independence and living alone, I still struggle with balancing my life because there never seems to be enough time for everything. I have no idea how she did any of it, the reconstruction of her own life and the nurturing of mine. She must've been very busy.