If You Could Say It
It was something I never thought I would say out loud, but what I had always wanted to say to my mother: “I just feel like you’re disappointed in me.”
Casey Huang for Bobblehaus
I have always held my tongue when I spoke to my parents. Never said what’s actually on my mind when I had trouble, never brought up hard topics, always strayed away from any expressions of feeling and hardship. Always wanted to hide what was bothering me, what was difficult for me, what was weighing on me. Out of respect, out of obedience, out of fear — whatever it was. When I left Shanghai for university in America, I cried only when I was packing my suitcase to go to Taipei, where I’m from. My mom happened to see me while she was walking to the bathroom. It was one of the few times I couldn’t hold back the tears from falling in front of her. When I had my toughest semester in university, I didn’t say anything to my parents. We never called that much when I was in university, probably only once a month, if that. They went between Shanghai and Taipei as they usually do, and I tried to play catch up on where they were. They had a sense something was off, but never pushed for an explanation. I just called less and looked tired. When I went home for winter break, I spoke very little, passing out in bed and watching TV. We never talked about what happened — not about the many times I cried in the library, not that I worked through every weekend, not that I had been so upset that I didn’t even want to see my friends. I just held it in, as I always did.
We never talked about what happened — not about the many times I cried in the library, not that I worked through every weekend, not that I had been so upset that I didn’t even want to see my friends. I just held it in, as I always did.
My mom always told me to just be honest with them, but it always felt like it was just something she said but didn’t really mean. For some reason, I always felt like I couldn’t tell them what was bothering me because we just never did that as a family. We don’t sit down and talk about what’s bothering us. I don’t blame them for not being there for me, because I didn’t let them in the first place. I didn’t ask for anything because I didn’t want to appear like I needed anything. I didn’t want to rely on them, didn’t want them to immediately come to my rescue. But most of all, I didn’t want to seem weak in front of them. As if I couldn’t handle being in America, I couldn’t handle being away from home, I couldn’t handle being an adult. I didn’t want to disappoint them, and I didn’t want to disappoint myself. Because, as hard as my parents can be on my brother and me sometimes, at the end of the day they always came to our rescue. Always. And yet, the dissonance lingered. I would tell myself, You should be able to handle it on your own. Just deal with it.
And move on.
But most of all, I didn’t want to seem weak in front of them. As if I couldn’t handle being in America, I couldn’t handle being away from home, I couldn’t handle being an adult.
So when I decided not to go back to Asia after graduation and instead move to New York to work, my mom reacted with noticeable disapproval. I had been toying between moving to LA, going back to Shanghai or Taipei, or moving to New York post-grad. My parents were clearly eager for me to move back to Asia, and I wouldn’t have minded that either. But I had already applied for my OPT and figured I would at least stay a year in America to work. My mom had never liked New York, and since my cousin lives in California, she’s always been more keen on me staying on the West coast. But I knew that I didn’t want to stay in California.
A few months after graduation, I moved to New York. Initially, I didn’t have an apartment and was crashing with my friend Carolyn, carrying a whole mess of emotions as both a new graduate and recent transplant. I called my mom maybe twice after the move, and both times we spoke it was tense whenever I mentioned my job or the new move. She expressed what seemed like clear disapproval to me, and when I told her I wanted to go home to visit sometime next year, she responded: “Why? Why don’t you just stay there?” I had to shift my phone ever so slightly so she wouldn’t see me cry, a tactic I don’t usually need to use because I know how to hide my emotions very well. It was a difficult phone call, much like the one before it. I had been on the verge of tears at least once each time, even though I can’t remember what for.
That’s the way it always is. We say things we maybe don’t mean, we raise our voices ever so slightly each time so that we feel like the other person has heard us, and we hang up the phone feeling shittier than we began. Our phone calls weren’t always like this — years ago, we would talk about college and my mom’s friends, her classes and her last trip to Japan, my friends and what they’re doing with their lives. But recently, our easy, light conversations have given way to this unspeakable sadness and frustration.
That’s the way it always is. We say things we maybe don’t mean, we raise our voices ever so slightly each time so that we feel like the other person has heard us, and we hang up the phone feeling shittier than we began.
By the third call, we both felt like we were on the verge of something. The buildup was palpable and when there was a lull in between sentences, I hesitated for a moment before saying what had been on my mind since graduation. My mom sensed it and gently nudged me towards speaking my mind.
So I said it. I just feel like you’re disappointed in me.
It had always lingered in the back of my mind growing up, a voice I could never shut off. Nothing I did felt like enough. These were probably the most weighted words I have ever said in my life, mostly because I never thought they would actually come out of my mouth. I’m sure I will remember it as vividly as I do now, me sitting cross-legged on Carolyn’s grey Ikea chair with my phone on the matching seat across from me, fingers buried so deeply into my scalp I was pulling my hair. I can’t even believe I said it to her — it was far more honest than I ever thought I would be with my parents. But it had been eating away at me year by year, as I piled more and more on my plate but never felt like I was doing enough, which honestly never bothered me until I moved. Somehow, this move felt like a big decision that I needed my parents to stand by. I was voluntarily staying in the states when I had the option to go home, and I didn’t even know for sure when the next time I could go home was. It was a bigger step than I felt like I had taken in the past, and, naturally, I valued my mom’s opinion of my choices (and sort of in general, even if I don’t always listen to it).
When I say I said it, I mean more like I choked it out through my tears. I was already crying in anticipation of what I knew I was about to say, and the more I elaborated the more I cried. I couldn’t even say it in Chinese because it felt too real, too to the point, too honest. English provides a cushion for that, for words that carry too much weight in Chinese. I told her everything — how I felt like she disapproved of my choices, that I couldn’t properly move forward with my life if she disapproved, how I felt like I was disappointing her in my choice to stay.
English provides a cushion for [these moments], for words that carry too much weight in Chinese.
And she wasn’t disappointed, she said — she was just worried. She told me she hates that we are not even in the same country, that my sense of her disapproval comes from her being worried about me because America is not yet a familiar place for any of us. That I was leaving yet another place of familiarity behind, that I would have to be alone again, find new friends again, find an apartment again. She used the words, “心疼”, which, I can’t fully translate to English because I don’t think it carries the same weight. But it literally expresses the hardest, most poignant of heart aches, and she meant something along the lines of “I can’t bear to see you there, working twice as hard as you would have to in Asia, without your family and people who can take care of you.”
She meant that she doesn’t know New York, that there’s no one here to support me if I need it, that there’s so much more uncertainty added onto the East coast than the West. I assured her that I needed this to grow, even if I might not fully want to. I would love the comfort of home, of family, but I needed this learning experience too. She, in turn, assured me that she would stand behind me in my choices and how I wanted to move forward with my life (granted that I come home eventually, soon). We exchanged these feelings until we assured each other of the other’s opinions.
She used the words, “心疼”, which, I can’t fully translate to English because I don’t think it carries the same weight. But it literally expresses the hardest, most poignant of heart aches.
I felt a weight had been lifted off my entire chest after that. We ended in mutual understanding in a way we never had before, even if we had come close a few times. I think that call taught me a lot more about life than I expected it too, but it was much needed and long overdue. We ended the call on the topic of cats, and I found an apartment in New York a few days later.
We called again yesterday, and now we talk as we usually do. But now I ask her about the bigger choices in my life, and I feel so much lighter for it.