|Also reblogged from my friend L|
I’m not suffering from you right now, but you come in and out of my life so regularly that as soon as I saw L’s post, I knew today’s letter had to be to you, because you are never a welcome presence in my life. It comforts me only slightly that I understand exactly where you come from:
Back when Amy Chau’s memoir was released, lots of my Asian and non-Asian friends started joking around about whether their parents were Tigers (and not in the legacy-student sense of the word). These students, who for the most part play instruments, got amazing grades throughout their primary and secondary educations, and now go to one of the top universities in the world found it easy to joke about the effectiveness or benefits of Tiger-Motherhood, regardless of whether their own parents had been Tigers. My own mother was only a Tiger certain ways–appearances were everything, and one’s hair had to be straight, neatly arranged, and one’s clothes had to be ironed if one were going to go anywhere with her–most notoriously in terms of her standards for my academic success; I had to beg and plead for extra-curricular development, rather than be forced to practice my instrument for hours on end. All that open communication and “talking” rather than authoritative discipline that Annette Laureau talks about with wealthy parents’ style of raising their children…yeah you can tell we were poor, because her word was law and the only appropriate response was “Yes ma’am Mom”. Praise was not common in my house–in my ex-stepfather’s words: “Why should I reward you for acting like you’re supposed to?”
Straight A’s were mandatory in my household for me according to my mother’s rules from the very beginning. I didn’t really even have to work at this until sixth grade math; Mrs. Franks hated us and constantly reminded us that we were idiots in comparison to the accelerated math class from the year before (don’tcha just love people who shouldn’t be around children in their formative years and choose to become teachers?). I came home with my first ever B, and my mother was furious. I tried to explain that the class was hard, and I couldn’t be perfect, and my then-stepfather beat me mercilessly. Buckle end of the belt. My failure (because anything less than perfection was failure) was unacceptable and would not be tolerated in this house. I would be perfect, or I would be punished. End of story.
When my mother and the abusive asshole finally separated for the last time, when I was in the 7th grade, I thought the worst of it was over. I was taller than my mom by that age, and though I had no doubt she could still beat me, I doubted that she would. And I was right: psychological torture was her weapon of choice.
Example A) My school district sent home interim report cards about halfway through each marking period, designed to let you and your parents know how you were doing in your classes so that improvements could be made if necessary before final grades came out. In the second marking period of the year when I was in 7th grade, my interim report card came home showing that I had a B in Art, with As in all my other classes. The comments said that I had incomplete work, which was not untrue–we had been working on an Indian-henna-practices-inspired scratch art piece, and in the vein of true Indian henna, my work was ornate and complex. It took considerably more time than my classmates’ flowers and simple patterns, and I wasn’t done yet, but wasn’t going to compromise my project to finish on time; you can’t rush art. [The piece later went on to be featured in the County Art Fair #I’mjustsayin] This explanation didn’t come close to being acceptable to my mother though; she grounded me, said I was not going to perform in the band’s Winter Concert which I had a 12-measure solo in, and took away my TV, computer privileges, books, and library card. I had to go in to school the next day and explain this to my band director, while I was sobbing and so ashamed that I couldn’t look him in the eye. He told me he’d suspected things were bad at home, but never anything like this. He took it upon himself to speak with my art teacher, who reluctantly allowed me to take home the tools I needed to finish my project and then wrote a note to my mother saying that my grade was an A, which my mother reluctantly accepted and let me be in the concert.
Example B: 8th grade. My school had become so overcrowded that some genius (read: idiot) administrator decided to implement a one-way-hallway policy designed to facilitate faster commutes from one classroom to another between bells. Students caught going the wrong way in a one-way hallway were subject to detention. One day, I left my sneakers in the locker room after gym. I realized this as I was halfway down the one-way hallway on my way to Health class, and tried to turn around and go back, but a teacher yelled at me. I told him what had happened and he said to go to class and ask my Health teacher for a pass to go to the gym. I went to class and the Health teacher said I had to wait to the end of the period, and then he would write me a pass explaining why I would be late to my next class. Needless to say, by the end of that period, my sneakers were nowhere to be found. I went home and explained what had happened to my mother, and said I needed new sneakers–I’d only owned one pair. She told me I should have been more responsible, and that she wasn’t going to buy me new sneakers. So, every day for the rest of the marking period, I was unprepared for gym class. I tried to participate when I could, but usually my teacher made me sit on the bleachers because I didn’t have the right shoes. And come the end of the marking period, I got a C in gym, with the comments stating that I was unprepared. My mother screams at me for hours, grounds me for the entire next marking period (about 10 weeks), again stripping my room of everything but a bed and a dresser and taking away my computer and library privileges. I wasn’t allowed to celebrate my 14th birthday–no cake, no party, no gifts. But at least she bought me a goddamn pair of sneakers.
Example C) Freshman year of high school, Geometry. Barely squeaked by with a 91, the lowest grade in the A-range. She told me it was unacceptable. Confused, I said, “But mom, it’s an A. Look at the scale!” She said it wasn’t a high enough A.
Example D) My senior year of high school, once I was already accepted to Princeton and had decided the rest of my high school career was meaningless, I wasn’t doing too well in AP Calc II. I may have had a C at the interim-reporting time. My friends lamented having gotten their interims, and I was legitimately afraid to go home because I didn’t know what my mother would do to me. I’d never had that kind of grade in an academic class before. I rummaged around the house until I found a spare mailbox key, prayed to a God I didn’t believe in, and thanked my lucky stars when I found that she hadn’t checked the mail the day before because my interim was still in the box. I very sneakily removed it, left everything else undisturbed, and destroyed all evidence of its existence. She never asked about it. I’ll never tell.
One of the reasons Remember the Titans is one of my favorite movies (besides Denzel) is that the team overcomes every possible obstacle to actually achieve the supposed-to-be-impossible requirement of perfection. They gave me hope that even in the darkest moments, even when I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t, even when I wanted to run away or give in to her threats to send me to live with my father, I could take it. WILL. YOU. EVER. QUIT????? NO. WE WANT SOME MORE. WE WANT SOME MORE. WE WANT SOME MORE!!!!!! It was probably somewhere around this time of my life that I silently declared war against my mother. The time for trying to reason with her had long since passed, so I put my game face on and said Bring it, bitch. Every impossible standard she threw at me, I worked my ass off to reach. It damn near killed me, but I did it. I shattered everyone’s expectations…even her own, I think. I hated her for it, every day for so many years of my life I hated her for it…but look where it got me. I can’t say it didn’t work.
And now, as I keep saying, I am a grown-ass woman. My mother no longer has that kind of control over me–I made sure of this as I worked to change the tone of our relationship once I went to college. She tried to give me shit about having a B in Spanish my first semester, and I made it clear that I wasn’t having it. I guess having an above-average GPA at the (then-) number one institution in the country was enough for her, because the battles ceased.
At least, the ones with her did. The problem with being exposed to something so regularly for such a prolonged period of time, however, is that you unconsciously begin to internalize it. I have different standards than those she demanded that I meet, but I still hold myself to them as rigorously as she made me. I am still disappointed by B+s. I still over-involve myself and then drive myself damn-near-crazy trying to give my all to every single commitment I have. I still can’t do anything halfway. I still can’t leave my room/house for the day without checking the mirror. I don’t like to call myself a control freak, but I panic when something happens in my life that I have no power over. Every time I stumble or misstep walking down this crazy path called life, I become an emotional wreck. My tiniest mistakes are blown into epic proportions in my head, and instead of looking at an obstacle and instantly thinking up ways to turn it into a stepping stone, I sit and cry and feel like my entire world has come crashing down around me. Every time something goes wrong, even something that I had no control over, you completely overtake me and leave me a crumbled tear-stained mess on a floor or in my bed. I always fall back on you, instantly looking for ways to blame myself, always wondering what’s wrong with me that caused this to happen. A mistake temporarily ends me. It’s so easy for me to ignore all my accomplishments and feel like a total and complete failure when something goes wrong, because though I’m now sure she didn’t mean to, she made me feel like a collection of mistakes, rather than a human being who is allowed to err. I don’t know how to limit myself, which is as much of a curse as it is a blessing. I cannot wage war against myself as I waged war against my mother, because my goal is to love me in every way that I can. That means getting her, and the way she presumably DOESN’T EVEN FEEL ANYMORE (and probably never felt), out of my head.
These are self-affirmations:
I am allowed to make mistakes. I cannot learn without them. The world will not end if I have to backtrack a little bit. Not every misstep is a failure. The sun will rise even if I don’t have a small success to offer it. The pinnacle of perfection is simply being myself. That is the only end-goal I need.
Take your ass on home, atelophobia. You are not welcome here.
Respectfully not yours,