媽(Mā)

A Love Letter From a Mother’s Son

By Rich Tseng

Drawing the author did last Mother’s Day

Drawing the author did last Mother’s Day

I

Here’s how crazy my mom was: when I was three she tried to fight all of Chinatown on my behalf. I was by a fruit stand, waiting for her to finish up inside, when a couple of young women walked by. One pinched my cheek with the casualness of someone scratching a dog’s ears, then walked on. Not used to being grabbed by strangers, I complained to my mom about what had happened. At first she tried to assure me that they didn’t mean anything by it. But when she saw that I was genuinely upset, she marched us outside and proceeded to tell off the whole block, shouting for whoever dared touch her child to step forward. That was my mom—a fury on the street corner. No f*cks given about anyone staring. Madder than a grizzly defending her cubs. That’s how much she loved me.

Taking on a neighbourhood wasn’t the craziest thing mom ever did, either. When she was in her mid-twenties she got on a plane—back when most people she knew had never flown before—and came to Canada in 1984 to marry a Taiwanese transplant who’d stopped by her family’s house for dinner a few weeks before. A man with whom she had mostly corresponded by mail. This was somehow totally normal for the generation that would later denounce Tinder.

Mom’s first winter in Canada, 1984

Mom’s first winter in Canada, 1984

Dad’s letters turned out to be about as embellished as most dating profiles. He claimed to be an integral part of one of the country’s biggest companies, but left out the fact that he worked in the warehouse and earned warehouse wages. Dad also mentioned a burgeoning imported book empire he wanted her to help rule, that turned out to be more of a side hustle in need of free labor. But mom had quit her job as lead sales rep for Taiwan’s first five-star luxury hotel, and at 25, she was of the age when most women of her time got married and didn’t divorce. So she got pregnant and decided to Alice Munro it. She swallowed her disappointment and stayed. And it wouldn’t be until she got very sick that she would see how much dad cared. 

II

The author as a little boy

The author as a little boy

Growing up in Canada, I could sense “parent” maybe wasn’t mom’s first vocational choice. While she took every opportunity to let us know how important we were and how much she loved us, she also wondered aloud about the life that could have been. What might success look like in a country where she didn’t feel like a perpetual foreigner? How far could she go if she could get her humour and personality across in the language she spoke best? 

Mom’s uneasy relationship with the world outside the Chinese-Canadian community made her motherly instincts kick into overdrive at home. Beyond harm, she sheltered us from life. We rarely associated with kids outside of school. Instead, our hours were mostly filled with math tutors, art lessons, and piano practice. As a result, I spent my childhood as a fat indoor kid with a recurring dream I’d had since I was five. In it, I come downstairs to find Darth Vader fixing his makeup in my bathroom mirror. Except it’s not the Sith Lord. I stare into the opaque soulless eyes of that demonic helmet and recognize my mother. 

Sometimes I’d go for a week without kissing her after I awoke. 

Even after the dream made sense, it still terrified. Yes, mom carried me to term for over nine months, fed me, clothed me and literally dragged me to school. She’s partially responsible for my ability to make people laugh, my fluency in both Mandarin and English, my creativity and my kindness. But like her, I also bottled up my feelings and cared too much about what strangers thought. I also let her temper and fear of me getting hurt become my excuses for ducking risks and not doing my best. Her attempts to keep me from harm became what damaged me.

Then in 10th grade, mom’s growing over-protection made me realize that I could either resent her forever or disobey the woman who loved me most. So when my friend Alex asked me to join the rugby team, I signed up. Mom and I fought for hours before she begrudgingly signed the consent forms. Fear for my safety kept her from coming to games. And since she didn’t really want me playing anyway, I couldn’t always make practice. But she made sure I ate and slept enough to play well and beamed with pride when I got in her car at the end of the season with one of the team’s MVP trophies.

III

Mom in the great outdoors

Sadly, one act of rebellion rarely makes a competent human being. In my final months of ad school, I hid in the kitchen, “working” on my portfolio as mom’s brain turned into a tumor and her body became a vegetable in the bedroom above, leaving all the caregiving to my dad. While mom lay in a bed at the hospital, gasping for air as cancer finally killed her, I huddled in the corner and listened to Laura Marling’s “Night Terrors” on repeat.

Then a couple nights after mom died, I saw her in a dream. Guilt streamed from my eyes as I told her how sorry I was for not doing more. 
“Ah, it doesn’t matter,” she said. And then I awoke.

For a while, I told people about how I abandoned my mother and ignored their advice not to beat myself up about it. Then I lost my job. And when I was most worried about going home with my tail between my legs, I saw her again. This time as my mother came to hug me I broke down and asked her why she had to leave. Mom looked at me blankly as if to say, “Why do you have to be such a buzzkill?” The dream dissolved around me and once again I awoke with wet eyes. 

IV

Léon Bonvin - Vase of Red and White Carnations | Photo by Ryan Kaldari

Léon Bonvin - Vase of Red and White Carnations | Photo by Ryan Kaldari

After that I resolved to atone for my guilt. Mom was right, what happened doesn’t matter, what I do next does. I would try to honor every parent’s wish that we be better than they were. I may not be a Chinatown-fighting, barely-strangers-marrying kind of mad, but as a reckless over-thinker whose earnest sincerity makes people uncomfortable, I’m mad nonetheless. Mom’s less rational choices brought her kids a lot of joy, but also f*cked us up in other ways. So I strive to maximize the joy my craziness can bring to those left behind, while minimizing the pain it can cause. I will not shy away from scary things like people I care about getting hurt, or a small lump in the armpit that could grow to be death itself. And as much as losing a loved one will always suck, maybe next time the inevitable happens, I’ll be ready to make it suck less.

Then a funny thing happened one day as I started to become more like someone mom would’ve been proud of. I was at my desk listening to Sky Ferreira’s cover of “Easy”, a song about why loved ones leave, and I get my answer. What it must have been like to be my mom hits me so hard in the chest that I had to lie down—literally floored. We’ll never know exactly what birthed mom’s cancer, but her habits—bad dieting, no exercise, needless late nights and all that resentment—certainly fed it. But how could I blame her? Being stranded halfway round the world in a disappointing marriage, with no home to go back to, and the burden of a life you didn’t prepare for or want. The ensuing social anxiety and longing for what could have been, while stuck in a Thoreau-style “life of quiet desperation”. Next, the elation that comes with making your children your purpose, and the terrifying uncertainty of what happens when they stop being children. She carried all this as courageously and with as much strength and grace as anyone could muster.
 
Mom was an extremely smart, talented woman whose dreams became clouded by life. And while I can’t kill her problems with laser swords, it’s okay. Because she did her best, and then she got to let it all go. And with that, I let my own anger and guilt towards her go too. What replaced it was a joy best described by the lyrics, “easy like Sunday morning.” 

V

Classic Taiwanese Ba Wan | Photo by Oldowlnest

Classic Taiwanese Ba Wan | Photo by Oldowlnest

One day I’m biking home, struggling to finish this article, when I ride right through the smell of fresh Ba-wan—those savory Taiwanese dumplings that were my staple post-Rugby practice snack. My chest gets light and heavy at the same time, because there will never be anything quite like my mom’s cooking. 

Still, I utter a silent thank you. Even though I spent years watching from her kitchen table, I never learned her recipes. But I did pick up the secret that care and attention becomes love you can taste. I see why the little things are what lasts. They are lingering reminders that the people we love will always be around us. We just need to pay attention. 

I take a deep breath, smile at some Chinatown tourists, and peddle on.
 

Chinatown in San Francisco | Photo by Shmuel Spiegelman

Chinatown in San Francisco | Photo by Shmuel Spiegelman