Traditional Chinese never say the words, “I love you.” In Chinese culture, people say “I love you” by saying, “Dzai chr yidianr.” “Eat a little more.” Or, “Hai yao fan, ma?” “Have another bowl of rice.” Or, they are critical. My mother showered me with love by being critical. My hair was too long. My skirts were too short. My boyfriends weren’t smart enough. Yet, to me, her criticisms were not about love, but about oppression. And, I was compelled to resist.
Take the summer I met John. John was handsome, worldly, and sexy in a bored sort of way. He knew cars and drove a hotrod that he had built himself. He wore after-shave that smelled of lime and spice, and he was a great kisser. We kissed long and passionately every evening on the living room couch until my mother, wordlessly, came down to the kitchen to bang on the pots and pans: The sign for John to leave. I would roll my eyes and grimace in her direction. Once, I said something offensive and she slapped me in the face. Shocked and insulted, I retaliated with a cold silence that lasted for weeks.
If I wanted to go out, she would say to stay in. If I wanted to stay in, she would say to go out. She never seemed to approve of anything I did. One night years later, however, something else happened. My mom was with me in Boston and I had come home tired and hungry after a long day. Without taking off my coat, I grabbed some leftover chicken from the frig and began to eat. Mid-mouthful, I looked up to see my mother sadly watching me, her eyes filled with tears. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Aiya, Mary! You don’t take care of yourself!” she lamented. “You work too hard! You try to do too much! You don’t rest! You don’t eat good! Look! You don’t even warm up your food!” My stomach growled as I noticed her face, wrinkled with worry. In that moment, I realized that my mother berated me out of great concern. She worried about me and wanted me to have a good life. I then understood that I didn’t have to be offended nor defend myself. With relief, I responded, “You care!?! Alright, I’ll warm things up. And, I’ll make some for you, too. Ok?” Instead of denying or refuting her criticisms, I could smile and agree with her: “Yes, my hair is too long.” “You’re right, he’s not very smart.” “Yeah, yeah, that was very stupid of me.” My agreeing disarmed her. We could then laugh together and move on to something else. “Would you like something to eat?” she might ask.
As the criticism stopped, there were more opportunities to be positive. One day, I decided to tell my mother everything I appreciated about her. It was a bit awkward but I went for it. “Mom,” I started, “I owe you everything, and I want you to know I am grateful for all that you’ve done. Thank you for giving me dancing and piano lessons. Thank you for putting up with Dad and keeping the family together. Thank you for cooking and cleaning and driving me everywhere when I was little. Thank you for encouraging me. For worrying about me. For believing in me. I am so grateful that you are my mother…” Surprised by this unusual display, my mother started to cry. “You really mean it, don’t you?” She asked. And, of course, I did.
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